SAN FRANCISCO -- In an apparent effort to shore up support for its Windows software, Microsoft on Wednesday announced at a developer conference here that it's bringing back the Start menu and will offer certain versions of its operating system for free.

The Start menu, which Microsoft eliminated when it released Windows 8 in 2012, will return to Windows in an update, the date of which was not announced. Meanwhile, the company said it will start offering Windows at no charge for smartphones, "Internet of Things" devices such as smart thermostats and to tablets with screens smaller than nine inches.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gestures during the keynote address of the Build Conference Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in San Francisco. Microsoft kicked off
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gestures during the keynote address of the Build Conference Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in San Francisco. Microsoft kicked off its annual conference for software developers, with new updates to the Windows 8 operating system and upcoming features for Windows Phone and Xbox. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) ( Eric Risberg )

The Start menu change will make it easier for consumers on PC desktops to find their apps, said Terry Myerson, the company's executive vice president of operating systems. And by making Windows available for free, Microsoft hopes to broaden the number of devices using it, Myerson added.

"These are exciting times for us and exciting times for developers," company CEO Satya Nadella said.

The moves also represent a change of direction for the company. Its business model was built around charging for its software, particularly Windows. And the Start-less interface in Windows 8 was meant eventually to replace the traditional computer desktop.

The changes come as Microsoft struggles to compete in a rapidly changing technology market in which it is no longer the dominant player. The traditional PC market has shrunk, and Microsoft has found little enthusiasm among consumers or its corporate customers for Windows 8. Windows Phone is a distant third in market share behind Google's Android and Apple's iOS. And Linux and Android are finding widespread use among other consumer electronics devices.

"They are absolutely on the defensive, with their own customers and developers," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis, a technology research firm. "But they admit it."

Many of the other announcements at Microsoft's conference, which largely attracted software programmers, focused on new tools or technologies for building Windows applications. But many of these will also affect consumers. Among them:

  • The company announced a new version of the Windows Phone software that will roll out later this month. It includes a Siri-like intelligent assistant called Cortana that responds to voice queries and commands. The new software also will add a notification center that's similar to those found on the iPhone or Android devices and a new keyboard that allows users to type words by swiping from one letter to another without picking up their fingers.

  • The new version of Windows Phone essentially has the same code at its base as Windows for PCs. That means developers now can create apps that will run on Windows-based smartphones, tablets and PCs. In certain cases, consumers will be able to purchase one app that they can use on their laptop and on their handheld devices. The company is working on technology that will allow users to run these new "universal" apps on the Xbox One game system as well. Company officials demonstrated using the Khan Academy app on the Xbox One.

  • Microsoft is releasing a new version of the Kinect for Windows PCs based on the Kinect that Microsoft created for the Xbox One.

  • The upcoming version of Windows for PCs will allow users to run apps designed for the "modern" Windows interface as traditional windowed applications in Windows 8's desktop interface. The new feature should make it easier for those users who prefer the desktop environment to avoid having to flip back and forth between it and the touchscreen-focused modern interface.

  • The company showed off a new version of Office that's designed for the modern, touch-based interface. The current version of Office for Windows 8 is a desktop app, but the company has already been working on redesigning the software for touch-screen devices. Just last week, Microsoft released versions of Word and other Office apps for Apple's iPad. It didn't say when it will release the touch-based version for Windows.

    Several of the moves represent Microsoft's effort to play catch-up with competitors and with the changing market, noted Greengart. Android -- Windows Phone's chief rival -- is already free for competitors. Apple debuted Siri more than two years ago. And it would have been good if the touch-screen version of Office had been ready to go when Microsoft introduced its second generation Surface tablets last year, he said.

    But the company is still a significant player in the technology market, and it's clear that new CEO Nadella is thinking creatively about how to rejuvenate it, Greengart said, adding that Nadella's vision "isn't about the desktop (PC) -- the vision is about thriving in a world that (Microsoft) doesn't control."

    Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285. Follow him at Twitter.com/troywolv.