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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.

Eric Risberg/AP

Microsoft's new strategy for its flagging operating system empire is to make it easy for those all-important apps to work across a host of different devices including computers, tablets and phones.

The plan, announced at the software company's Build conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, is to provide developers with the tools that will let them design an app once, then apply it across all of Microsoft's Windows 8 platforms, even the Xbox game consoles eventually, with minimal extra effort.

This "universal app" approach differs from that being taken by Microsoft's main competitors Google and Apple, who have thus far been offering developers different tools depending on which category of device they're designing for. Developers who create for computers, for example, have to work with either Chrome or OS X, while those on mobile devices must use Android or iOS.

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Windows has always held out that long-promised holy grail of a unified experience, but it's only now that the pieces are falling into place, Microsoft executives say.

"Nobody else is even approaching that," said Windows Phone director Greg Sullivan in an interview. "We're thinking about it in a way that's going to set us up even better in the long term."

"That is going to be the ecosystem of the future. It's not going to be constrained to this category or that category. They'll be stitched together. That will help create opportunities for developers because then you'll get to aggregate and leverage your investment across the broadest array of devices."

The first step was an overhaul of the company's mobile offerings. Microsoft was actually one of the first players in the smartphone market more than a decade ago with Windows Mobile, which was mostly just a replica of its desktop software on smaller devices. Apple's arrival on the scene in 2007 with the iPhone took the Redmond, Wash.-based company by surprise and eventually forced a rethink of its approach.

Windows Phone 7 in 2010 was the first effort to catch up. The new operating system had a slick tile-based interface and was designed around a touch screen, but it was really just a trial run for Windows Phone 8, launched in 2012. Devices running the new software were well received by reviewers, but they failed to resonate with consumers, many of whom had by now locked into Apple and Android devices.

Microsoft knows from its own dominance in desktop operating systems that once users choose a brand and stock up on its respective apps, it's difficult for them to be shaken loose. By most estimates, Windows Phone is now a distant third in the smartphone race, with global market share in the low single digits.

The story has been similar in tablets, where the company was also late to the party. By the time Windows 8-based Surface tablets launched in 2012, many consumers already had iPads or Android devices.

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And where consumers went, so too did those all-important app developers. While iOS and Android now boast upward of a million apps each, Microsoft has managed a comparatively paltry 245,000 so far.

Perhaps worst of all is the decline in the company's bread-and-butter: PCs. Last year saw the worst sales drop in the PC's history, which was partially explained by consumers switching much of their computing needs over to phones and tablets, but also by poor sales of Windows 8, released in 2012. The touch-oriented interface has been a flop, with market share growth as recently as December coming in below its four-year-old predecessor, Windows 7, according to one report.

The mounting problems led to big changes at the company, with long-time chief executive Steve Ballmer giving way to Satya Nadella in February. So far, the new CEO hasn't been shy about steering the company in new directions. Last week, he announced the launch of Office apps for the iPad – a shock in some corners of the tech world – while at Build he made a proclamation that was unusual for the company in its humility.

"We are going to innovate with a challenger mindset," he said.

Mr. Nadella is moving to put a few other necessary pieces of the universal app strategy into place, such as the announcement on Wednesday to offer an updated Windows Phone 8.1 – featuring a voice assistant named Cortana – for free to certain manufacturers. Companies making tablets and phones with screen sizes falling below nine inches will no longer have to pay Microsoft a licensing fee for the operating system.

It's a move designed to give low-cost Android phone makers, especially in developing countries, another option.

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"It's a statement that we're serious about driving volume," said Stephen Elop, chief executive of Finnish phone maker Nokia, which will be absorbed into Microsoft in the coming weeks. "It lowers friction with [manufacturers]."

That sought-after volume, he added, is what will eventually attract developers – especially if it can be coupled with the promise of PCs and Xbox consoles.

Speaking to a group of reporters at Build, Mr. Elop – who is Canadian and will be taking on the role of executive vice-president of devices at Microsoft when its acquisition closes – said another part of the strategy involves a shift in the types of developers the company is trying to court.

When Windows Phone 8 first launched, Microsoft went after the top 100 app developers in any given market – the big ones, like Facebook and Instagram. But now the company is focusing more locally.

"We might have the top three banks in a country, but we're trying to get the top five or six," he said. "Our challenges today are different than they were a year ago because we're making real progress."

Mobile is still considered key to the software battle since it's where most developers are focused. With Microsoft unable to lure developers to just phones alone, some analysts believe the unified approach is the way to go.

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"This is Microsoft's best bet to retain developers and attract their attention," said Kevin Restivo, an analyst with tracking firm IDC.

Some developers like the strategy too.

"It's the smartest thing they've done in a long time," said Kerry Morrison, chief executive of Toronto-based Endloop Mobile.

The unified approach may not appeal to all developers, or even many of them, since not all apps translate onto other platforms – a flashlight app makes sense on a phone, for example, but not on a desktop. But that may be because the existing constraints of different operating systems have trained both consumers and developers against thinking in such dimensions.

"We aren't used to asking for such things," said Mr. Morrison, whose company has designed apps for the likes of Hyundai, Home Depot and Subway. "I think it's something we're going to gravitate to big time."

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