SAN FRANCISCO -- Microsoft obviously believes in the old motto that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
At a developer conference here, company officials unveiled a new version of its flagship Windows software, announced that it's opening up technologies from its Bing search engine for programmers to use in their apps and touted new smartphones running its Windows Phone software.
In his keynote presentation at the Build conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that Windows 8, which the company released last year, irked some users of traditional PCs by forcing them to use a new touch-based start screen and by removing the iconic Windows Start button. Ballmer didn't apologize, but did note that Microsoft has moved to address those complaints in Windows 8.1, the updated version of the software that's due out later this year.
"We pushed boldly with Windows 8. (But) we got feedback from traditional Windows users who asked, 'Why don't you refine the blend here' " between the new and old interfaces, Ballmer said. He added, "The future of Windows is very, very bright."
The conference comes as some of Microsoft's consumer business lines have struggled. According to analysts, shipments of Windows 8 have been disappointing, thanks in part to the decline in sales of traditional PCs. But Microsoft has yet to gain much traction in the tablet market, and Windows Phone, its smartphone operating system, is an afterthought in a market dominated by Google's (GOOG) Android and Apple (AAPL). While Microsoft's Bing search engine has gained share, its success has largely come at the expense of Microsoft partner Yahoo (YHOO) and has done nothing to displace Google as the dominant search provider.
But analysts and software developers said the announcements indicate that Microsoft -- and perhaps its partners -- is heading in the right direction.
"They're setting themselves up for a nice holiday season this year," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with market research firm Gartner.
Many of Microsoft's announcements here concerned Windows 8.1. With the new software, Microsoft is returning its iconic Start button to the lower left corner of the desktop and will allow users to boot directly to the desktop interface.
The refined version of Windows is what Microsoft should have released last year, said Ben Bajarin, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies, a technology consulting firm.
"It took them a while to get things right," said Bajarin. But he added, "They definitely took a step forward."
Ballmer and his team did have a few surprises for attendees. Windows 8.1 will provide native support for 3-D printing, for example, making it easier for consumers to take concepts they've developed on their computer and create real-world objects out of them. And the software will support touchless gestures, allowing cooks in a kitchen, for example, to be able to move up and down a Web page without having to touch their screen.
Perhaps the biggest announcement, though, was that Microsoft is trying to turn Bing into a "platform,"allowing developers to incorporate a range of Bing technologies beyond its search engine into their applications. Programmers will have access to Bing's text recognition and visual search capabilities and its support for natural interfaces, such as touch. Microsoft executive Gurdeep Singh-Pall demonstrated a sample application that allowed users to ask aloud about the architect of a museum building in Spain they were viewing in Microsoft's Map application. The system quickly returned an answer.
The demo was "amazing," said Todd Garrison, a developer for San Francisco-based Great Place to Work. "They're trying to out-Google Google."
But Microsoft didn't address all of its problems at the conference, developers and analysts said. Company officials said little about Windows Phone, for example. And they said little about bulking up the sparse Windows app store, beyond announcing that Facebook and Flipboard are coming. To have greater success, they're going to have to have a lot more of those tier-one apps," said Patrick Moorhead, an industry analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, a consulting firm.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285. Follow him at Twitter.com/troywolv.