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Originally published June 26, 2013 at 7:57 PM | Page modified June 27, 2013 at 6:25 PM

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Microsoft pitches new mantra: rapid-release product cycle

Introducing Windows 8.1, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer also talks about “rapid release,” the company’s attempt to move quickly in an environment of fast change.

/ Seattle Times technology reporter

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SAN FRANCISCO —

At Build, Microsoft’s big conference for third-party developers, the company typically touts its upcoming platforms and the ways developers can build on them.

And certainly Wednesday, the first day of this year’s Build, there was plenty of that. Company executives talked up Windows 8.1, the update to the Windows 8 operating system released last fall, and about new devices coming later this year, including smaller tablets running Windows and more “2-in-1” devices that convert from notebook to tablet.

But in his keynote address Wednesday at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, CEO Steve Ballmer seemed almost as intent on convincing his audience of the changing culture at Microsoft.

If there’s one thing he wanted to impress on the thousands of developers gathered, he said, it’s “the transformation we are moving to as a company toward a rapid release cycle.”

And, in case listeners didn’t get that the first time, he repeated it in typical Ballmer fashion: “Rapid release. Rapid release. ... Rapid-release cycle is fundamental to what we do.”

It’s an illustration of the change Ballmer is trying to bring about both within Microsoft, and in the perception outsiders have of the company as it transforms into one that provides devices and services, not just traditional software.

It’s especially important to convince independent developers of this change because Microsoft needs them to believe they’re creating apps on platforms that can keep up in a new computing world in which innovation is constant and updates are frequent.

That’s not to say the transformation is anywhere near complete.

“I think the transition to devices and services is a work in progress,” said Al Hilwa, an analyst with research firm IDC.

“We saw many aspects of the Windows platform come together this morning,” but nothing about what’s coming for the next version of Windows Phone, he said. “The reality is that the phone platform is moving on its own cadence and is not fully converged with Windows tablets.”

But, Hilwa added, it appeared to him that Windows Phone will eventually “look a lot like Windows tablets, and that is a good thing because competing platforms from Apple and Google already manifest this convergence.”

(Microsoft did say at the keynote that Sprint has signed on as a Windows Phone carrier. It will carry the HTC 8XT and the Samsung Ativ S Neo.

(Microsoft also announced, separately from the keynote, that the Windows Phone Store now has about 160,000 apps, that the app download volume is up significantly since Windows Phone 8 launched in October, and that revenue to developers has gone up twice since that launch. Microsoft declined to give a specific revenue figure.)

During the keynote, Microsoft executives outlined the main features of Windows 8.1, most of which had been previously announced.

The Start button, for example, makes a comeback of sorts. There’s a small Windows logo in the bottom left corner that Microsoft folks are referring to as a Start tip. Clicking or tapping on it returns the user to the Start screen.

Windows 8.1 also allows users to boot straight to the desktop. It has a less jarring transition from desktop to tile-based mode, and a global search function that can search users’ files and applications as well as the Web.

One new feature unveiled at Build — and one of the most interesting — is the positioning of Bing as a platform.

The Microsoft search service, which is fighting an uphill battle against leader Google, is not just a search engine, said Gurdeep Singh Pall, a Microsoft corporate vice president.

Bing, he said, is also a repository of knowledge, a translator of speech and text, an interpreter of gestures, a treasure trove of maps — all of which developers can now embed in applications.

That caught the ear of Andrew Kling, director of research and development for Invensys, a company that works on technologies to automate and control processes in various industries, such as manufacturing or utilities.

Offering up a search engine as a platform isn’t new. Google has done it, and Kling worked for a company that created a search engine that did it, he said.

That said, “Bing is a strong platform,” he said, adding he could see his company building an application that uses Bing’s capabilities to “search thousands of nodes. That’s the kind of tool that brings some innovative solutions to our space.”

Kling also was struck by Ballmer’s emphasis on the rapid release cycle, and the fact that this Build conference, as Ballmer mentioned, is taking place only eight months after the last one.

On the move to a more rapid cadence, Microsoft is simply “embracing where the industry is going,” Kling said.

But, he added, “for Microsoft to move such a large organization, with such complexity, is a significant feat.”

The conference runs through Friday.

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

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