It's crucial that Microsoft sets things right with Windows 8.1 because the outlook for the PC market keeps getting gloomier. IDC now expects PC shipments to fall by nearly 8 percent this year, worse than its previous forecast of a 1 percent dip. IDC also anticipates tablets will outsell laptop computers for the first time this year.
Microsoft is addressing that shift by banking its future on touch controls. Its strategy calls for having just one operating system work on both tablets and traditional computers. That allows popular Windows programs such as Office to work well on tablets, too. But in making Windows easy for touch screens, mouse and keyboard commands are more complex to use and figure out.
Apple and Google, on the other hand, believe people use those machines differently and have opted to keep their operating systems separate. Apple, for instance, believes that it can be tiresome to have to constantly move your arm to touch a desktop or laptop screen. That's not a problem with tablets because you're already holding it.
As for the growing interest in smaller, cheaper tablets, Microsoft has said the company is working with other manufacturers to make some. At the conference, it didn't confirm reports that it is making its own.
Microsoft also said very little about Windows RT, the Windows 8 variant that's designed to run on the same phone-style processors that let the iPad and Android tablets be lighter and have longer battery lives than Windows 8 tablets with PC-style Intel processors. Windows RT has been hamstrung by a lack of applications, since it won't run older Windows programs.
At the conference, Microsoft showed off an Acer tablet with an 8-inch screen — a size that would be a good fit for an RT device — but it ran full-blown Windows 8 instead.