With the beginning of the Microsoft?s BUILD 2013 opening keynote this Wednesday, the company announced the availability of the Windows 8.1 Preview (previously codenamed Blue). Aside from a number of optimizations, new and refreshed native apps, appearance of the Start button and significantly expanded customization options, the update finally brings advanced and automated scaling (now up to 200%) with support for very high screen resolutions.

Steve Ballmer reiterated on stage that the company is more than aware how the PC world is transforming and evolving into something else ? and that their Windows 8 OS with the most recent upgrade is not only following the tempo closely ? it pushes it even further, especially when touch-based devices are in question. Rapid software development is now the primary focus of the company as they also transform from the pure software company into ?software powered services and software powered devices company.? The pace set is far from the earlier three-year development cycle. It moved and evolved into something much faster, according to Microsoft?s chief. "Think of it as the new norm for everything we do, (?) it?s about rapid pace of innovation," he added during the presentation.

Windows 8.1 Preview Mail App
New features in the native Mail app are welcome, though they are not fully ready in the 8.1 Preview

Aside from the expected features coming in the 8.1 Preview, Microsoft wants the Windows Store ecosystem to grow stronger, as they announced the coming of official Flipboard and facebook apps with claims they will have majority of the top iPad and Android apps by the launch of the final version of the 8.1. By the end of this month, it is expected that the Store will have more than 100,000 apps. Curiously enough, the software giant doesn?t even try to hide that they are indeed developing the full Metro variant of their Office package anymore, though not much was demoed on stage. Audience got to see the PowerPoint player app without any controls or additional features.

Flipboard, facebook, NFL apps for Windows 8.1
Mike McCue made quite a bold statement for their upcoming Flipboard app

Cherry on the top was certainly the fact folks at Redmond decided to natively support 3D printers in Windows 8.1. During keynote Microsoft demonstrated that it is just as easy to start the 3D printing sequence as is the case with regular printing. Not only that they partnered up with a number of companies (Makerbot, 3D Systems, Form Labs, Autodesk, just to name a few), but they also noted that they will sell 3D printers inside Microsoft Stores. Company seems to believe 3D printing will penetrate into the mainstream segment of the market very soon.

3d printing
Microsoft demoed on-stage how easy it is to begin the 3D printing process on one MakerBot unit

3d systems printer
Microsoft believes that 3D printers are coming to the mainstream market very soon

"With Windows 8 we built a new Windows, reimagined from the chipset to the experience. It was an ambitious vision, and with Windows 8.1 we refine it (…) The preview we are releasing today is an important step for partners around the world that are building the next generation of Windows devices and apps," said Julie Larson-Green, Corporate VP of Windows.

Worth having in mind is that one should not rush to install the Preview version, as it is currently swarmed with bugs and the upgrade to the final version that is coming later this year will not be possible without losing installed applications. Then again, there is an option for enthusiasts to install the 8.1 Preview in dual-boot or to simply use VM (at least on x86). Windows 8.1 Preview is available on the Microsoft?s official website.

Aside from the Windows OS, Microsoft did in fact mention the Windows Phone on stage, but also confirmed that there won?t be any core platform announcements this conference. Knowing that the Blue update is coming to their mobile platform as well, we do wonder if they left that part for one of the Nokia?s upcoming events.