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Microsoft touching up Windows 8 to address gripes

Wednesday - 5/8/2013, 4:04pm  ET

FILE - Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gives his presentation at the launch of Microsoft Windows 8, in New York, in this Oct. 25, 2012 file photo. Microsoft is retooling the latest version of its Windows operating system to address complaints and confusion that have been blamed for deepening a slump in personal computer sales. The tune up announced Tuesday May 7, 2013 won't be released to consumers and businesses until later this year. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

MICHAEL LIEDTKE
AP Technology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Microsoft is retooling the latest version of its Windows operating system to address complaints and confusion that have been blamed for deepening a slump in personal computer sales.

The tune up announced Tuesday won't be released to consumers and businesses until later this year. The changes, part of a software package given the codename "Blue," are a tacit acknowledgment of the shortcomings in Windows 8, a radical overhaul of Microsoft Corp.'s ubiquitous operating system.

With the makeover it released last October, Microsoft hoped to play a more prominent role in the growing mobile device market while still maintaining its dominance in PCs. But Windows 8's design, which emphasizes interactive tiles and touch controls, seems to have befuddled as many people as it has impressed. One leading research firm, International Data Corp., says Windows 8 contributed to a 14 percent decline in worldwide PC sales during the first three months of the year -- the biggest year-over-year drop ever.

Meanwhile, sales of smartphones and tablet computers are booming. The biggest beneficiaries have been Apple Inc., the maker of the iPhone and iPad, and Samsung Electronics Co., which sells the most devices running on Google Inc.'s Android software. Google is also benefiting from Android's popularity through increased traffic to its services, creating more opportunities for the company to display ads.

By contrast, leading PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc., which primarily sell Windows-powered machines, have been mired in a financial funk that has battered their stocks and raised questions about their futures.

Despite the troubling signs, Microsoft insists it's pleased with Windows 8's performance.

The company, which is based in Redmond, Wash., says more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses have been sold so far, up from about 60 million licenses in January. The licensing volume "is in the same general ballpark," as Microsoft's previous operating system -- Windows 7 -- at a similar juncture of its sales cycle, according to Tami Reller, who serves as the marketing and financial chief for Microsoft's Windows business.

In an interview, Reller said Microsoft still realized changes need to be made to make Windows 8 easier to navigate and capable of taking full advantage of technology improvements that have come out since October.

"Are there things that we can do to improve the experience? Absolutely," Reller said "There is a learning curve (to Windows 8) and we can work to address that."

For now, Microsoft isn't saying what kind of changes will be introduced with the release of Blue, which the company plans to anoint with a different name when the update is available. Microsoft also isn't saying whether it will charge existing owners of Windows 8 devices to get the fixes in Blue. The company plans to release Blue in time for the holiday season.

Reller said more details about Blue will be released before Microsoft holds a developers conference in San Francisco in late June. Some of Blue's features are expected to be previewed at that conference.

"I view this as a relaunch of Windows 8, finally giving everyone a fully baked version," said technology analyst Patrick Moorhead. "It has been a very rough road for Microsoft so far."

If Blue is meant to make people more comfortable, the changes may incorporate more of the elements from earlier versions of Windows.

A common complaint has centered on the lack of a "start" button in the Windows 8 menu.

Other critics have pined for an option that would allow the system to begin in a desktop mode suited for running applications designed for earlier versions of the operating system. Windows 8 currently starts off showing a mosaic of interactive tiles tailored for swiping through programs with a finger instead of using a computer mouse.

Blue also might make it easier to find a set of controls -- known as "charms" in Windows 8's parlance -- that currently must be pulled out from the right side of a display screen.

Besides responding to customer feedback, Blue also will make Windows 8 better suited for smaller, less expensive tablets with 7- and 8-inch display screens, Reller said. She declined to say whether Microsoft intends to make smaller version of its own Surface tablets. In a conference call with analysts last month, Microsoft Chief Financial Officer Peter Klein said the company was working with other manufacturers to make smaller tablets.

Moorhead also believes Blue will bring more built-in programs, such as a video editor and audio recorder, to Windows 8 and may also include other improvements.

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