At Build, Microsoft moving to post-PC era on its own terms

While Windows remains squarely at the heart of Microsoft's strategy, CEO Steve Ballmer highlights all sorts of non-traditional PCs that are using the operating system.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer addressing developers at the company's Build 2013 conference in San Francisco. James Martin/CNET

When Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer took the stage at the company's Build developer conference in San Francisco Wednesday morning, he made a special point to note that the event came just eight months after the last Build conference.

His point is that Microsoft is all about "rapid releases" these days. The company is pumping out the type of updates in months that it often took years to produce.

"You can think of that as the new norm of everything we do," Ballmer said.

It's really the way Microsoft is addressing the post-PC era. Microsoft refuses to call it that, having coined the phrase "PC-plus" era. But today, Ballmer didn't even use that phrase. Instead, he acknowledged, albeit briefly, the "interesting transition" in the device business away from traditional PCs.

That's why Ballmer and the other Microsoft executives showed off the range of devices running Windows 8.1 that look nothing like desktops and laptops of yore. The operating system update, which was released as a preview Wednesday and will be available in its final version later this year, will power a new selection of smaller tablets, 8 inches or less. Ballmer highlighted a few of the so-called "2 in 1" devices, gadgets that work as both a tablet and a laptop. And executives showed how Windows 8 integrates with the upcoming Xbox One and with Windows Phone devices.

Microsoft is trying to position itself to remain at the core of computing, even as it recognizes the trend of consumers opting for devices that aren't traditional PCs where the software giant has always been dominant. A key message from Wednesday's keynote address is that while Windows remains at the heart of Microsoft's strategy, the traditional PC is not.

"As developers we know you have a lot of choices...when people really need to get something done, when they need to plan a trip, when they need to get some work done..., we think we have the highest volume platform on the planet," Ballmer told the 6,000 developers in the room and the estimate 60,000 watching it online. "We will literally sell hundreds of millions of Windows devices this year."

It's a tricky transition for Microsoft, one that the company has tried to navigate for the last several years. Its strength has historically come from the desktop and laptop world. The company is working to leverage that dominance into the new era, where tablets and smartphones are booming and the PC sales are shrinking.

But that mobile world moves much faster than Microsoft has historically. Rivals such as Apple and Google update their mobile operating systems with a speed that Microsoft hasn't had to with Windows. That speed is something developers count on. They want to be certain that the platform for which they create apps will remain interesting for consumers.

The scant eight months between Build conferences is a testament to Microsoft's bid to adapt to the post-PC era. Even if it's not calling it that.

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