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Microsoft Build: Windows 8.1 Preview Now Live

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer began this year's Build Conference in San Francisco this morning with a keynote, setting the stage for a first look at Windows 8.1 (with the preview now available for download), the new Bing development API and Visual Studio 2013,

Windows 8.1 earned the lion's share of the presentation, as Ballmer and Julie Larson-Green, corporate vice president of Windows, talked about the features and capabilities added to Microsoft's desktop operating system. Ballmer drew extended applause when he told attendees that Microsoft had reinstated the Start button in Windows 8.1, and drew another round of applause when he said users can choose to boot directly to the desktop in Windows 8.1.

"What we will show you today is a refined blend of our desktop experience and our modern user interface and application experience," Ballmer said.

The Build Conference, Microsoft's flagship event for developers, drew 6,000 attendees, with another 60,000 people viewing the keynote address online, according to Ballmer.

Windows 8.1 on Display
Larson-Green showed off the new capabilities of the OS, noting that Microsoft had made 800 updates to Windows 8 since its launch in November 2012. She showed off new gesture support that makes it easier to select auto-fill text options when typing with the on-screen keyboard, and demoed the new hands-free mode that lets users interact with a tablet or device without touching the screen.

Windows 8.1 will provide significantly improved multi-tasking support, thanks to a more flexible multi-window interface than the one-third/two-thirds model required in Windows 8. Larson-Green showed off a dual-monitor system displaying eight Windows Store UI apps -- four on each screen. She also showed how Windows 8.1 automatically resizes and snaps a new window onto the display when a user opens a new message in Outlook.

Other UI enhancements include the ability to quickly access the All Apps screen with a simple swipe up gesture, and the ability to better manage that screen by viewing apps by name, date installed, category and recent use. Larson-Green also showed how users can customize the look and feel of the Windows 8 background, including support for background animation that responds to scroll events.

One feature that drew applause was updated access to key apps directly from the lock screen, eliminating the need for a logon. Larson-Green showed how users in Windows 8.1 can answer an incoming video chat call without logging into the tablet, by touching the notification icons in the lock screen. She also said that users will be able to access the Camera from the lock screen as well.

Developer Appeal
While Larson-Green explored features that will help Microsoft sell Windows 8.1 to users, Antoine LeBlond, corporate vice president of Windows Program Management, appealed to developers. LeBlond introduced Visual Studio 2013, showing off new features that will improve mobile, Web and desktop development.

LeBlond demoed a new performance analysis tool that enables developers to create detailed reports of application resource consumption and performance. In addition to sampling CPU activity, the tool displays application power consumption in milliwatts -- enabling developers to tightly profile the impact their apps will have on battery life.

LeBlond also showed off resources for debugging asynchronous code in Visual Studio 2013 -- a welcome improvement for developers working with the await and async keywords. LeBlond showed how the call stack in Visual Studio 2013 now preserves the entire asynchronous call context, so developers can track down issues.

Web development gets a boost in Visual Studio 2013 and Windows 8.1, with support for the WebGL JavaScript API for enabling rich, 3D graphics in browser and native Windows 8.1 apps. Also introduced is support for MPEG-DASH, which provides support for variable bit rate, high definition video and digital rights management. LeBlond in his demo showed how users can interact with hardware-accelerated, 3D animation, and showed animation and video running simultaneously across four windows.

LeBlond's demo also covered broader territory, including expanded device support in Windows 8.1. The new OS, he said, is the first to support 3D printers. LeBlond demonstrated how printing a 3D model to a desktop 3D printer is very similar to printing a document. He also demonstrated rich device interaction that's possible with Windows 8.1, using a tablet to control a Lego Mindstorm robot over a WiFi connection.

Bing Surprise
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the new that Microsoft is positioning Bing as a development platform. Corporate Vice President Gurdeep Singh Pall announced that Microsoft was making available new APIs that allows developers to integrate rich Bing functionality into their Windows Store apps.

Pall showed off a travel companion app that leverages Bing to provide a suite of rich features built around travel. Voice input, contextual search, optical character recognition, language translation and 3D map display were all highlighted in the sample app.

"The unbounded knowledge of the Web is now available to you in your applications," Pall told the audience.

Ballmer said Bing is being built into Windows 8.1, Windows Phone and Xbox.

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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