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Microsoft Gives Windows New Design, Builds in Conferencing Tool

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·5 min read
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(Bloomberg) -- Microsoft Corp. debuted a significant overhaul of its Windows operating system — one of the biggest changes to its mainstay personal-computer software in a decade — with a design that uses rounded corners and softer visuals on its digital panels and builds in spaces for content creators and some of Microsoft’s own popular apps.

With technology giants facing increased regulatory scrutiny, Microsoft said at an event on Thursday it will focus on making Windows 11 a more open platform. A new start menu appears at the center of the screen and helps connect users to their applications more quickly. The design will have new “web widgets” areas, where content creators can highlight their products. One of the widgets will be a news feed that highlights stories and content and where users can give paid tips to the people who created them. The software features new layouts to “snap” multiple apps into place on a single screen.

“Think about the size and scale of the Windows platform and the opportunity to open up to local content creators and global brands alike,” Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay said at the virtual unveiling. “It’s good for creators, it’s good for consumers. We are just at the beginning of opening up new real estate within Windows.”

At the same time, Microsoft will bundle some of its own apps into Windows in a way that may cause headaches for some rivals in corporate software. The company said it will integrate its Teams chat and videoconferencing software directly into the operating system. Teams has seen a huge surge in users during the pandemic, boosting Microsoft in a product category where it’s been trying to catch up with Slack Technologies Inc. and Zoom Video Communications Inc. Integrating Teams into Windows, which is shipped pre-installed on many PCs, could help further buoy adoption of the product.

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft will also put its Xbox Game Pass gaming subscription app into Windows.

Microsoft’s past efforts to tie its own newer apps to Windows as a way to compete with rival products formed the basis of a U.S. government antitrust lawsuit against the software maker in the late 1990s. Ultimately, the courts found Microsoft guilty of another antitrust charge and didn’t settle the bundling issue, which involved building its Internet Explorer browser into Windows to gain traction against upstart web pioneer Netscape. European regulators did find the tying behavior to be a violation of its laws.Slack, which makes popular office-chat software, has already complained to European regulators about Microsoft’s integration of Teams into its ubiquitous Office suite of business-productivity applications, including Word and Excel. Though regulators around the world have been closely examining the market power of big technology companies, Microsoft has been largely exempt from the scrutiny so far.

Windows, once Microsoft’s flagship offering and the software that helped the company build its dominance in the PC industry, has waned in importance in the past two decades, when smartphones and tablets running other operating systems rose to prominence. While Windows remains entrenched among corporate users, Apple has increasingly attracted buyers for its Mac PCs and Google has gained ground with cheaper Chromebooks, with the latter becoming particularly popular among schools and students.

Still, the pandemic showed that rumors of the demise of the PC and Windows have been exaggerated. PC sales and Windows usage have soared in the past 15 months, fueled by the expansion of working, gaming and schooling from home. Overall, PC shipments rose 32% in the quarter that ended in March, according to Gartner Inc. For Microsoft, sales of Windows pre-installed in consumer machines surged in the past four quarters, rising 44% in the most recent period, and notching gains of more than 30% for two of the three other quarters. The Windows operating system software has been in need of a visual makeover, with the most recent prior upgrade, Windows 10, released in 2015 and the last notable design overhaul three years before that. The new software will start rolling out next week to users who have signed up to test the program, although it will initially lack many of the new features just announced. The final version is planned for later this year.At the event, Microsoft also said app developers in its Windows Store, which sells downloadable programs that run on the system, can use their own commerce platforms, which means they wouldn’t have to pay Microsoft a commission for paid app purchases. This feature is a shot at Apple Inc., with whom Microsoft — and other developers — have been feuding over app store fees. Apple requires developers to use its commerce tools and charges a 30% commission for apps that generated more than $1 million in the previous year. Microsoft charges 15% and is cutting the fee for PC games to 12% in August.Windows 11 will also be able to run Android apps, and will let users add them to the Start menu. The apps will be available for purchase in the Windows Store using a connection with the Amazon App Store, which sells apps for systems including the Android OS. “We love that the Microsoft Store continues to be more open,” Panay said.

(Adds details about past antitrust case in fifth paragraph, information about launch date in seventh.)

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