SAN FRANCISCO _ Steve Ballmer opened Microsoft’s Build developer conference by noting that it’s been just a year since the last conference.
That highlights the more rapid cadence that’s part of Microsoft’s transformation into a device and service company, the company’s chief executive said on a blue stage filled with new Windows PCs and phones.
“That’s not even so much about the conference but it’s about the rapid pace of innovation,” he said.
To be sure the 6,000 developers in Moscone Center got the message, Ballmer repeated the word “rapid” several times. (Here is Janet Tu’s coverage of the keynote.)
Microsoft’s going through a transformation “to an absolutely rapid release cycle – rapid release, rapid release,” he said.
The release today of a preview version of Windows 8.1 – just seven months after the original version of Windows 8 went on sale – also reflects this speedier approach to updating and releasing its products.
“The only way in which that transformation can possibly be driven is on a principle of a rapid release. It’s not a one-time thing,” Ballmer said.
Yet the first full-throated cheers came when Ballmer announced that attendees will receive a new 8.1-inch Acer tablet and noted that people can now download the preview version of Windows 8.1, which will start appearing on new PCs later this year.
The audience also cheered when Ballmer announced that Facebook’s finally bringing a native app to Windows 8. Also coming is an NFL fantasy app.
“You see a heck of a lot of movement, a heck of a lot of innovation, a heckuva a lot of responsiveness all coming to market in a very rapid timeframe,” he said.
Ballmer said the PC is also going through a transformation. He showed off several devices that function as both a tablet and a laptop.
Touch PCs were scarce when Windows 8 launched last fall but that’s changing, he said, which is important to Microsoft because users are happier with the new operating system if they’re using it on a touch-enabled machine.
Ballmer told developers they’ll see “an outpouring of devices that are notebook computers in every respect yet have touch fully integrated and accessible.”
Among the machines highlighted is a Lenovo Helix tablet with an Intel Core i7 processor and an attachable keyboard.
“Should we call that a PC? Should we call it a tablet?” Ballmer said. “What I call it is all Windows, all the time.”
Then Windows Vice President Julie Larson-Green demonstrated Windows 8.1, showing features like the returning “start button” and the ability to start the software with a traditional Windows desktop. The start button is a Windows icon in the lower left corner of the screen; clicking it calls up the tiled Windows 8 “start screen.”
Also shown was the ability to split the screen vertically into three or four panels. At one point Larson-Green whetted the appetite of multi-tasking developers by running two screens with eight apps displayed simultaneously.
Other goodies for users of multiple monitors include the ability of 8.1 to automatically rescale windows as they move from a primary to secondary monitor. Windows Vice President Antoine Leblond showed this by dragging an app from the screen of a tablet to an attached large-screen monitor; once it was fully on the large monitor the windowed app adjusted itself to the larger display.
“These are just nice touches that allow your existing desktop app investments to be great with modern hardware,” he said.
Further playing to the geeky audience, Leblond showed how Windows 8.1 adds support for 3D printers by printing a plastic vase on stage. Then he showed an upcoming Lego robot and controlled a tablet-toting, tweeting robot on stage using a Lego app available through the Windows app store.
Leblond also showed off several new Windows 8 PCs, including a Dell tablet that runs 18 hours when attached to an accessory keyboard. A Samsung Ultrabook he showed has 12-hour battery life and a display that’s better than Brand A, he said.
“It blows away a MacBook Retina – and it has a touch screen,” Leblond said in the keynote’s first reference to Apple.
Larson-Green then drew another big round of cheers by announcing that attendees will also receive a Surface Pro tablet with a Touch keyboard.