The Windows 8 operating system debuted worldwide Friday, with Microsoft Corp. looking to gain a competitive edge in the market for mobile devices by focusing on smartphones and tablets.

As Apple Inc. and Google Inc. continue to increase their presence in multiple markets, Microsoft views its new OS as crucial to counter competition from its archrivals, according to experts.

“Microsoft is taking a big gamble over the next few months with Windows 8,” U.S.-based IT consulting firm Gartner Inc. said last month. “It is a risk Microsoft must take to stay relevant in a world where mobile devices offering new experiences are becoming the norm.”

A major difference between Windows 8 and its predecessor is that the new OS can be controlled via a touch screen, creating a user interface more oriented toward smartphones and tablets. But users can also use a traditional Windows desktop screen and a mouse.

The new display, consisting of tile-shaped applications, was first used for Microsoft’s smartphone operating system that has lagged behind Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android system for smartphones. With Windows 8, Microsoft is hoping to unify the user interfaces of such devices as computers, smartphones and its Xbox video game console.

Since Microsoft still has a large market share and considerable influence over the OS market for PCs, experts said it is looking to spread its new unified system from the desktop and laptop markets to the mobile sector — the exact opposite of Apple’s strategy.

“Apple was not really able to grow its share of the PC market, but it improved its brand image through iPods, iPhones and iPads, which then attracted consumers to Apple computers. I think Microsoft is trying to create a flow in the opposite direction,” said Hiroshi Sakai, chief analyst at SMBC Friend Research Center.

Microsoft wants to become more competitive in the rapidly growing tablet and smartphone markets, said Sakai, adding the company can’t simply defend its turf in the PC market, given Apple’s potential to lure away customers.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is also looking to develop a market for a hybrid tablet-laptop device powered by Windows 8. Thanks to the spread of user-friendly touch screens, electronics makers are boasting devices that can be serve as both. A Microsoft product manager said cultivating this market is one of the key aims of launching Windows 8.

For instance, Panasonic Corp. has released a laptop whose screen can be rotated so consumers can use the device as a tablet computer, while Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp. have developed laptop-tablet products that turn into tablets when users slide their screens.

“The touch-control feature could possibly create a new market and user needs,” said Sakai at SMBC Friend Research.

The debut of Windows 8 appeared to go smoothly in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics mecca. On the eve of the release, Microsoft held a promotional event in the center of Akihabara with dozens of devices for passers-by to check out the new OS in person, and about a dozen stores in the district held midnight countdown sales events where hundreds of customers celebrated the launch of Windows 8.

Those looking to upgrade to Windows 8 from Microsoft’s previous OS can download it for ¥3,300 online or purchase it at stores for around ¥5,800.

Just installing Windows 8 does not mean users have touch-screen capability, as computers need to be built with a touch-compatible screen.

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