Microsoft today said that it will ship a Windows 8.1 refresh, a set of new features primarily designed to make the struggling OS easier to use for customers navigating with mouse and keyboard, on April 8.
The announcement was anticipated by leaks weeks ago, and the April 8 launch date by reports from long-time Windows observers, including ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley.
Most of those reports were based on leaks from the Russian website Wzor.net, which went dark two weeks ago, just a day after U.S. federal law enforcement officials arrested a former Microsoft employee for allegedly stealing trade secrets, then sharing them with an unidentified French blogger.
Dubbed "Windows 8.1 Update," the refresh will be available to all Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 users through Windows Update, Microsoft's standard consumer- and small business-grade patching and updating service, and which also powers the enterprise-level WSUS (Windows Server Update Services).
Windows 8.1 Update will be free.
Coincidentally, April 8 is also the last day Microsoft will patch the 13-year-old Windows XP, which exits all public support that day.
Joe Belfiore, the Microsoft executive in charge of Windows Phone and Windows 8's user experience, ran through several of the new features in Windows 8.1 Update, ranging from a default boot-to-desktop setting for non-touch devices to desktop-style title bars on the "Modern," ne "Metro" apps. Also within the update, said Belfiore, are always-visible power and search buttons on the Start screen, the ability to "pin" Metro apps to the desktop's taskbar, and right-click contextual menus for Metro apps.
All of those changes had been leaker prior to today by a variety of sources, including Wzor.net.
"Windows 8.1 Update will be smoother and easier to use for folks with mouse and keyboard focus. We want to make Windows 8.1 easier to use and easier to learn," said Belfiore, implicitly acknowledging what customers and reviewers have said since before Windows 8's 2012 launch -- that the radical overhaul lacked enough hand-holding, and more importantly, stressed touch at the expense of more traditional user interface (UI) navigation and control.
Belfiore also reconfirmed that Windows 8.1 Update has been modified to work on lower-priced devices that sport just 1GB of system memory and as little as 16GB of on-device storage.
As a sop to the Metro UI and its tile-style, touch-first apps, Windows 8.1 Update will also feature a pre-pinned Windows Store -- the only authorized distribution channel for those apps -- on the taskbar, said Belfiore. The store itself will undergo a design overhaul in the near future, he added.
"Users will find the store much more discoverable," Belfiore said.
Although customers won't receive Windows 8.1 Update until next week, developers with MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network) subscriptions can download and install the refresh today.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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