Microsoft’s day in the sun: Highlights from Build 2013 keynote in San Francisco

Taking the stage at today’s Build 2013 keynote, Microsoft (s msft) CEO Steve Ballmer did his best to prove that his company, known in recent years for being less agile or flexible than competitors like Google (s goog) and Facebook (s fb), would embrace the times and hop on new trends.

However, the announcements unveiled during the speech didn’t exactly jibe with the bold, exciting approach Microsoft wants. In fact, nothing was particularly eye-catching or mind-blowing — which shows that Microsoft is still struggling to fit into its new, self-imposed sexy and agile mold.

But what Ballmer and company did show is that the folks at Microsoft haven’t completely slept through the technological lessons of the last five years. Here are the highlights from the keynote, which include both tablet and PC updates.

“Rapid” Releases

First and foremost, Ballmer made a clear promise: the slow updates and iterations of previous OS software are no longer, and Microsoft is at the dawn of a “rapid release” tactic for all new software.

A commitment to these short “twitch cycles” has been on Ballmer’s mind for years, and his reiteration of it at the forefront of his speech indicates that updates will be coming much faster in the years to come.

Windows 8.1

Building off of Ballmer’s promise that Microsoft is becoming faster in its updates, the CEO showed of the belle of the ball: Windows 8.1.

The update to Microsoft’s PC and tablet OS, slated for a holiday release, includes some big changes. Most notably, the famous Start button will return on the platform, and the OS gains the ability to boot a traditional desktop mode — an aide for those complaining of the software’s at-times unintuitive structure.

In “Refining the blend” of the OS, Microsoft also included better integration with apps, which will automatically update on 8.1, a refined Bing browser platform loaded with features, native Skype calls from the home screen, a universal inbox app that shows social and a comprehensive Maps system. The platform will also include native integration with 3D printing systems and the forthcoming Xbox One, but the “Metro-style” office software that the company showed off won’t be available until 2014.

A preview of the OS is available for preview is available here.

Windows Phone Accessibility

With 8.1 taking up most of the airtime, Ballmer only offered one slice of information regarding the company’s Windows Phone fleet. The HTC 8XT and the Samsung Ativ S Neo will both be added to Sprint’s smartphone options, making the Windows Phone available on all U.S. carriers.

Tablet/PC Hybrids

So how does the software fit with the hardware? Ballmer indicated during his speech that Microsoft remained focused on blurring the line between PCs and tablets, while reaching for a reasonable price point.

On stage, Ballmer showed off 2-in-1 devices with both the pricey Lenovo Helix and the $500 Acer Iconia (a gift to attending developers) as the future of Microsoft.

“Should we call that a PC? Should we call that a tablet? I think we should call it all Windows, all the time.”