Microsoft unveils Windows 8.1 and the return of the start button

Microsoft Corp is bringing back the Windows “start” button, offering a stripped-down version among a slew of improvements aimed at winning over tablet users and placating PC customers alienated by Windows 8.

The world’s largest software company is looking to re-energize sales of its latest Windows version, which has not made the splash with computer users it was hoping for. Executives say the plan is now to update Windows periodically, rather than waiting three years or so between big releases.

Although Microsoft has sold more than 100 million Windows 8 licenses since October, broadly in line with Windows 7 three years ago.

Windows 8 was designed to be used both on touch-screen tablets and traditional PCs. But while touch-screen users tend to like the new “tile”-based interface, many mouse and keyboard users complained that the new design was confusing.

Confirming speculation, Microsoft said the Windows 8.1 update will have a button in the bottom left corner of the screen that acts like the “start” button in previous versions of Windows. Although it will not be labeled “start”, it features the Windows logo and takes the user straight to a grid of applications.

“The work you are seeing us do here is continuing to advance the modern (interface), while really taking into account some of the things we’ve learned from people who still want to use the desktop, to make the transition easier,” Antoine Leblond, corporate vice president of the Windows unit, said in an advance briefing on the Windows 8.1 update last week.

Windows 8.1, previously known by the code name “Blue”, will be available for free to all Windows 8 users some time later this year. Microsoft will make a test version available at its annual developer conference on June 26.

Users can also customize the start screen much more easily, changing sizes of app icon “tiles” or controlling which apps appear. For the first time, it will be possible to open two windows simultaneously in the new-look interface.