Windows 8.1 got its moment in the spotlight during Monday's Build keynote, but the real star was Microsoft's expanding ecosystem.
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Still, the PC landscape as a whole is different too. Businesses will remain largely invested in Windows for the foreseeable future, but tablets are eating into sales of conventional computers, and consumers have more flexibility than ever to choose which devices they want to use at work.
During the keynote, for example, each row in the press section featured a roughly equal mixture of OS X laptops and Windows 7 or 8 devices, as well as a menagerie of Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone handsets. Microsoft once enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the computer market, but this new diversity demonstrates the crowded battlefield into which the company's new OS is treading.
To help make its offerings more appealing, for both business users and consumers, Microsoft needs the help of developers, and beyond Windows 8.1, much of Build was dedicated to these themes.
Bing VP Gurdeep Singh Pall demonstrated how new apps can harness the "unbounded knowledge" of the Internet by relying on Bing APIs, for example. Such apps won't simply bring up content like a traditional search engine, he said. Rather, they will include voice commands, rich graphics and 3-D imagery, all of which can be packaged to fit a certain form factor and to translate seamlessly across different devices.
VP of Web Services Antoine Leblond demonstrated an updated version of Visual Studio, meanwhile, that includes new diagnostics and debugging tools, among other resources. Leblond also teased upcoming applications involving 3-D printing.
Attention to Xbox games -- including Project Spark, with which Microsoft presenters built a game in a matter of minutes using a tablet -- rounded out the keynote.
In the end, nothing stood out in the flashy was that a new Surface might have -- but in a way, that might have been the point. Microsoft used to release huge products every few years. Now, the pace of innovation is much quicker, leading to models in which incremental updates are released frequently, and in which major changes arrive in small iterations, rather than massive overhauls. Windows 8 itself was a big change, but Microsoft execs claim that even before 8.1 was previewed, the OS had already received 800 updates. Don't expect paradigm shifts every few years, in other words, but rather a steady stream of small refinements.
Ballmer referred to a "rapid release" cycle as the "new norm for everything we do," and said it would be central to Microsoft's transformation "from software to software-powered devices and software-powered services."
In an interview at Build, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said she was encouraged by much of the keynote.
"I wanted to hear about mobile, about phones all the way to the PC, that continuum," she said, adding, "That was obviously there."
She said that with Windows 8.1, Microsoft has "done everything they needed to, in terms of making the OS more engaging, and linking the familiar of the desktop with the Modern UI."
Though Win8.1's boot-to-desktop mode might encourage Win32 developers to ignore the new platform, Milanesi said she does not think this will be the case. The updated desktop mode includes more seamless and graceful connections to the Modern UI Live Tiles, and Milanesi said this will help desktop users to avoid forgetting the second UI is available.
Milanesi also noted that Microsoft seems "more attentive to the perspective of the user," and that the Windows Store, with its emphasis on merchandising applications, gives developers incentive to produce new apps.
After stumbling out of the gate, then, Microsoft's modern ecosystem is coming into shape. While it might not have presented anything revolutionary at Build, it passed an important test in terms of showing its responsiveness. The next test will be whether consumers start buying more Win8 devices.
. We've got a management crisis right now, and we've also got an engagement crisis. Could the two be linked? Tune in for the next installment of IT Life Radio, Wednesday May 20th at 3PM ET to find out.