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Originally published May 14, 2013 at 5:32 PM | Page modified May 15, 2013 at 11:26 AM

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Updated ‘Windows 8.1’ will be free to current users

The update, expected before the holidays, will be “easy to get” from the Windows 8 Start screen and from the Windows Store, said Tami Reller, Windows marketing and finance chief.

Seattle Times technology reporter

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The upcoming Windows 8 update, known up to now by the code name “Windows Blue,” will officially be called “Windows 8.1” and be free to download for current Windows 8 and Windows RT users.

The update could be crucial for Microsoft to gain market share, especially in the fast-growing tablet market where the company still only holds a tiny share. Microsoft designed Windows 8 specifically to work well on tablets, as well as on traditional PCs.

Microsoft executives have said the update, expected to address some customer feedback and complaints about Windows 8, will be available to download in preview form June 26. The final version will be available sometime before the holidays.

The update will be “easy to get” from the Windows 8 Start screen and from the Windows Store, Tami Reller, Windows marketing and finance chief, said Tuesday at the J.P. Morgan Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in Boston.

During her talk, Reller did not confirm a rumored August date for getting Windows 8.1 to manufacturers. But she did say Microsoft is “sensitive to the timing” of getting hardware preloaded with Windows 8.1 out in time for the holidays.

“We understand when the holidays are,” she said.

Windows 8, which launched last October, differs radically from previous Windows versions. It features a colorful tile-based design and a Start screen full of tiles rather than the traditional Start button or menu.

And it’s designed to work both on touch devices and traditional PCs, with two very different interfaces in one: the traditional desktop look, which came up for some applications; and the newer tile-based one, which came up for others.

So far, Microsoft has sold 100 million Windows 8 licenses. That’s on par with Windows 7, which sold about that amount at a similar point in its life cycle.

(Licenses include what manufacturers pay Microsoft to use Windows in the PCs they produce, as well as purchased upgrades.)

But research firms have shown PC shipments plunging in the past quarter, and some said Windows 8 was either to blame or, at the least, that it wasn’t helping to slow the decline.

Some of the loudest criticisms involve the lack of a Start button and the jarring dual desktop-tile-based interfaces.

Reller did not address the rumors that Windows 8.1 would bring back some sort of Start button or would allow users to boot directly to the desktop mode.

Michael Cherry, an analyst with independent research firm Directions on Microsoft, said what’s critical in Windows 8.1 is evidence that Microsoft is indeed listening to customer feedback.

Another criticism of Windows 8 is that it lacks apps. That’s especially important for Windows RT, the sort of Windows 8 “lite” that’s designed to run on ARM-based chips used in tablets and other mobile devices.

Windows RT, unlike Windows 8, cannot run legacy Windows apps. So Windows RT users are reliant on apps sold only through the Windows Store.

The number of Windows Store apps is at 70,000, Reller said Tuesday.

Though that number now includes popular games and apps such as Netflix and “Temple Run: Brave,” “one of the things I’d like to hear more about is the apps,” said analyst Cherry.

“Here’s the question I ask of everyone who uses Windows 8: ‘What’s the app you can’t live without,’ ”  he said. “And nobody answers that for me.”

There are 300,000 apps for Apple’s iPad and 700,000 apps in the Google Play store — though that includes apps for both Android phones and tablets.

Reller also reiterated Microsoft’s support for devices running both on battery-saving ARM-based chips and on x86 processors, which are more powerful but also use up more battery life.

Intel is expected to introduce its newest x86 Core processor, dubbed Haskell, in June, which is expected to have longer battery life than its predecessors.

Microsoft has “done so much to improve Windows RT since the Surface introduction in the fall,” Reller said.

She did not give any sales figures for Surface, Microsoft’s first foray into selling its own branded computing device.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @janettu.

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