SAN FRANCISCO — While Microsoft has dominated in a world ruled by PCs, it has lagged far behind in the smartphone and tablet battles.
Part of the problem has been many developers haven’t wanted to devote resources to creating apps for platforms in distant third place behind Apple and Google.
But, in a vicious cycle, the lack of apps is likely one reason customers have stayed away from Microsoft’s tablets and smartphones.
Wednesday, the first day of Microsoft’s annual Build conference for independent developers, the company took a big step toward solving that dilemma — and toward a more cohesive, unified experience for those who use a range of Microsoft-powered devices.
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Microsoft’s response came with what it calls “universal Windows apps.”
The company introduced the technology in a wide-ranging, three-hour opening keynote, during which it also introduced a digital voice technology called Cortana, an update to Windows Phone software, and an update to Windows 8.1.
The keynote also included an appearance by new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who
answered pre-videotaped questions from developers.
In reply to a question about his vision for Microsoft, he said it was: “To thrive in this world of mobile first, cloud first. There’s going to be more ubiquitous computing everywhere and more ambient intelligence everywhere.”
The “universal Windows apps,” which could help make that happen more easily, grabbed the developers’ attention.
These are apps that, Microsoft promises, can run across Windows PCs, tablets and phones, without developers having to do extensive work to port them from one platform to another.
Specifically, developers can use “approximately 90 percent of the same code, a single packaging system, and a common user interface to target apps for phones, tablets and PCs,” according to Microsoft.
Microsoft is also working on extending that capability to allow developers to easily port their apps to the Xbox platform, said Terry Myerson, head of Microsoft’s Operating Systems Group.
Myerson did not give a specific timeline for that milestone.
The promise, for customers, is that they can buy an app one time and it will work on the phone, tablet and PC.
Developers can start working within that “universal Windows app” framework with the tools Microsoft is releasing now.
The apps will work on the Windows 8.1 Update and Windows Phone 8.1 the company announced Wednesday.
“The universal app story is compelling, unique and long overdue — but really good for users and developers,” said analyst Michael Silver with research firm Gartner.
Wes Miller, analyst with research firm Directions on Microsoft, said he still has questions about whether the promise of writing once and easily porting apps across the different Microsoft platforms has been realized.
“There’s so much detail work left to see,” he said. “How much work do developers have to do to port existing apps to this new framework? How much fine-tuning do they have to do to make them really work well on each of the devices? How truly cross-architecture is it?”
If it does work well, Miller said, “you can say, within reason: ‘I develop once and I get all of Windows desktop, phone, tablets.’ If it’s a low enough cost to get there, you begin to get developers to do it.”
Also at Build, which runs through Friday at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, Microsoft announced:
• Cortana, a digital voice assistant that’s Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google Now.
Cortana, still in beta, is powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine and is also designed to learn more about its user over time.
For instance, it can keep track of who the important people are in a user’s life, letting those people ring through even during designated “quiet times” on a smartphone, or tracking what types of restaurants the user likes.
Cortana, named after an artificial-intelligence character in the video game “Halo,” synthesizes voices from multiple sources including that of actress Jen Taylor, who voices Cortana in “Halo.”
Over time, Microsoft plans to use Taylor’s voice “throughout a greater portion of the experience,” a Microsoft spokeswoman said.
Cortana is launching in the U.S. on Windows Phone 8.1 as a beta, and in the United Kingdom and in China in the second half of this year.
“Cortana looks like a good first attempt that leapfrogs what Siri can do today,” Silver said. “The question there will be the sustainability of keeping ahead of Siri.”
• Windows Phone 8.1, which will start rolling out to current Windows Phone users in the next few months and will come preinstalled in new phones starting this month.
The update includes features such as an “action screen” for notifications; more personalization options for lockscreens and the Start screen; and a keyboard that allows for Swype-like typing.
• Windows 8.1 Update, a collection of small changes to make the operating system more friendly to mouse-and-keyboard users.
Changes include booting to desktop mode by default on PCs (though the user can change that if desired); a title bar at the top of the screen, with buttons on it to close or minimize open apps; small icons at the top right for searching and powering on or off; and the ability to pin Windows Store apps to the taskbar at the bottom.
Current users of Windows 8.1 will receive the update free through Windows Update. Windows 8 users will receive the update free through the Windows Store beginning next Tuesday.
“The changes to Windows 8.1 are also great for users and overdue,” said Silver, the Gartner analyst. “It may reduce the pushback from users and organizations who didn’t want to deploy Windows 8 on non-touch devices.”
• In a big change from its traditional model of making money by charging manufacturers who use its operating systems in their devices, Microsoft says it will offer Windows free to manufacturers of devices with screen sizes smaller than 9 inches.
Microsoft probably won’t lose all that much revenue with the move, given that its market share among tablets and smartphones is so low.
Ironically, analyst Miller points out, Microsoft will probably earn more money per device now on small-screen Android devices than it does on Windows devices, given that Microsoft has reached patent agreements in which some manufacturers pay Microsoft royalties for each Android device they make.
“The only way to fight free [which Android is] is with free,” Miller said. “And Microsoft is charging a tax on the competitor’s stuff.
“It’s very … creative,” Miller said.
• The Start menu will return on some future version of Windows. Myerson did not offer specifics, nor did he give a timeline, as he showed an image of the Start menu along with Windows Store apps displayed in windows. (Currently, Windows Store apps can run only full screen.)
Myerson did not offer any specifics on Windows 9 — or whatever name the next big, new version of Windows will be called.
• Former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, who will come to head Microsoft’s hardware division once Microsoft’s deal to acquire Nokia’s handset business is finalized, introduced new Lumia Windows Phones — the Lumia 930, 635 and 630.
• Microsoft also introduced the work it’s doing on a touch-first version of Office for Windows devices. Last week, the company launched Office for iPad.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or email@example.com. On Twitter @janettu.