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In a brief interview Thursday, Ballmer expressed confidence that PC users would quickly realize the mosaic is easier and quicker to use than the old desktop format.

“You’ve got a whole screen as a start button!” he said.

Windows 8 comes with new controls. It marks the first time Microsoft has made touch-screen control the top priority, though the system can still be navigated with a keyboard and mouse in desktop mode.

“In the case of Windows 8, seeing, touching, clicking and swiping is really believing,” Ballmer said. He also predicted the PCs running on Windows 8 will be hailed as the best machines ever made.

Some Windows 8 PCs will be hybrids that look like laptops, but also have detachable display screens containing a separate battery so they can work like tablets, too. Those devices will face direct competition from Microsoft’s Surface.

On Thursday, Microsoft also spent time touting the Surface as a more versatile and durable alternative to the iPad, still the most popular tablet on the market.

At one point, a Microsoft executive dropped the Surface on the stage floor to demonstrate how difficult it is to break. In another gimmick, another Microsoft executive stood on a Surface with wheels to show it even had the strength of a skateboard.

The Surface goes on sale Friday, priced at $499 for a Wi-Fi-only tablet with 32 gigabytes of storage. Apple charges the same price for its latest full-size iPad with half the storage capacity. The price for a separate Microsoft “touch cover” that also serves as an attachable keyboard starts at $120.

Apple rolled out its own artillery earlier this week when it showed off a series of improvements to its own laptop and desktop computers and debuted the iPad Mini, a smaller and less expensive take on its top-selling tablet. Google will return fire Monday in New York at an event that it expected to introduce yet another smartphone and a larger version of the company’s 7-inch Nexus tablet.

Microsoft’s decision to sell its own piece of Windows 8 hardware threatens to alienate the device makers who license its software at the same time many consumers could be expressing their dismay and confusion with the redesigned operating system.

In an attempt to help people grasp and understand the changes, Microsoft is expected to spend an estimated $1 billion promoting Windows 8.

If Windows 8 is a hit, it could also help lift the fortunes of struggling PC makers, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc., whose stocks have plummeted in recent years amid the rise of mobile computing.

If Windows 8 is a flop, however, it will increase the pressure on Ballmer. Although Microsoft is far larger than when Ballmer became CEO nearly 13 years ago, the company’s stock has lost nearly half its value as Apple, Google and Amazon steered computing in a new direction. Restless shareholders could start clamoring for Ballmer’s ouster if Windows 8 doesn’t shake up the state of the technology market as dramatically as Ballmer envisions.

Microsoft shares fell two cents Thursday to close at $27.88.

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