Microsoft: Desperately wooing developers with new app features, gifts

San Francisco -- Microsoft is desperately courting developers, holding its second Build developer's conference in less than a year and this time giving attendees not one but two free Windows 8 devices to take home to develop apps for.

At Build 2013 today the company unveiled Windows 8.1, showing off new features of the operating system that developers can weave into their applications, as well as other utilities such as Bing Search, hands-free navigation mode and optical scanning of documents with a device's camera.

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CEO Steve Ballmer set a tone of urgency for the conference, saying that the company is rolling out upgrades to its products at an accelerated rate in order to meet a faster pace of innovation "as we go from a software company to a company that's building software-powered devices and software-powered services."

This stepped up pace is "the new normal for everything we do," Ballmer told the 6,000 in attendance and estimated 60,000 viewing the opening-day keynote as it was live streamed on the Internet. Even as he spoke Windows 8.1 Preview was ready for download.

Ballmer said Windows 8.1 helps unite the user experience among all Windows devices from phones to tablets to 2-in-1s, to laptops to desktops. He showed off a few phones, including Samsung ATIV Neo and HTC 8XT, both of which will be available through Sprint, an alliance he announced during the keynote.

To applause and cheers he announced that each attendee would receive an Acer Iconia 8.1-inch Winodws 8.1 tablet with Microsoft Office preloaded and that supports a separate Bluetooth keyboard. He called them full Windows 8 devices, but said he wouldn't call them PCs. He said there will be more Windows 8 tablets released in the coming months. Later Windows chief Julie Larson-Green announced to much applause that each attendee would also receive a Surface Pro tablet-laptop combo.

Microsoft gave attendees of last fall's Build conference a free Surface RT tablet.

Beyond giving away computers to entice developers, Microsoft is also tweaking its Windows Store so applications are easier to search on, which should help improve sales. The app-description pages have been redesigned so they can feature more information and pictures and references to other apps created by the same publisher also ways to encourage apps sales.

Ballmer acknowledged that such touch devices were lacking last winter when Windows 8 was released, which didn't show off the operating system to its best advantage because it really is all about touch.

But now the devices are ready and innovative applications incorporating new Windows features are needed to further spark demand. With the Windows Store about to hit an inventory of 100,000 Windows 8 applications sometime in the next month, Ballmer is seeking even more, and used the keynote to highlight new features developers can integrate in their applications.

Microsoft's Bing search engine has been made into a platform for developers to incorporate Web indexing and relevance, optical character recognition, natural user interfaces such as speech and gestures and integration with real-world data such as mapping.

A trip-planning application developed by Microsoft as a demonstration received input from a Windows Phone that was stored in the cloud then accessed from a Surface tablet. The app automatically displayed a range of information about cities entered as possible destinations, including aerial tours of sights of interest narrated by a text-to-speech engine that drew information from the Internet. This exploits a new capability of Windows 8.1, 3D mapping that can be embedded in applications.

The app responded to a spoken question "Who designed this building" with a photo and biography of the architect, also pulled from the Internet.

A separate food application includes recipes and takes advantage of a hands-free mode that lets cooks turn recipe pages with hand gestures rather than having to touch the screen with messy fingers. The camera on the tablet interprets hand motions to navigate the pages back and forth.

Ballmer says the day-two keynote will focus on cloud applications for business and how developers can use extensibility of standard Microsoft Office apps to create apps of their own in what he described as enterprise software as a service.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

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