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Sep 30 2014

It’s a 10! And Due Next Summer (Most Likely…)

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At a press event Tuesday evening Microsoft finally unveiled what is to be expected from its next-gen desktop OS. The four core messages are: A. It'll be called Windows 10. B. It's meant to be a common platform for all devices. C. It's likely to appear in mid-2015. And D. – yes, the start menu is back, albeit in slightly modified fashion.

Ever since the release of Windows 8, consumers, professionals and the IT industry alike had expected Microsoft to discontinue the product even faster than the Zune HD. After tonight's presentation, however, it's perfectly clear that Redmond won't move quite as quickly as in 2011. And it's also clear that there's no desire to "return to what they do best" and build a desktop-only operating system, as the most outspoken critics demanded. Instead, Microsoft holds on to a very important key part of the Windows 8 philosophy – namely, the idea that the best OS will be one that scales across all devices big and small and follows the same logic regardless of whether you're working on a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone or managing servers and Azure environments. To build such an all-encompassing platform is an ambitious goal indeed – and one that's very much in line with Bill Gates' old strategy of conquering the data center via the desktop.

Put another way, the upcoming Windows 10 will build on its predecessor rather than abandon the basic decisions brought about by the now-dreaded "two Steves" (Ballmer and Sinofsky). It all starts with the look – if Tuesday's presentation (held by Terry Myerson, Microsoft's Executive VP of Operating Systems, and Joe Belfiore, Corporate VP Operating Systems) is anything to go by, then "Win10" will retain both the candy colors and the tiles of the current edition. However, the latter no longer seem to jump at you when you're on your desktop, or at least they didn't during the show. That's one of two important concessions Microsoft is making to the classical group of "advanced" Windows users, e.g. office and knowledge workers. The other is that the developers brought back the Start Menu, thus ironing out the single most berated design flaw in Windows 8/8.1. The menu itself now offers a split view, with icons for a user's favorite/most-used applications and folders listed on the left and app tiles for Mail, Word, Skype etc. showing up on the right. Unlike in previous versions, both the tiles and the menu may now be resized in accordance with personal tastes or, more likely, limitations imposed by the screen size.

While members of the keyboard-and-mice community will certainly welcome these decisions, Win10 also introduces a number of new features that not only make sense in a desktop environment, but actually enhance the working experience a lot. According to Belfiore, that's because the developers "have embraced the idea of productivity for the widest scale of Windows users," or more prosaically, because they tried to come up with a particularly office-friendly OS. The list of novel features includes:

  • A customizable Start Menu – instead of letting your PC decide, you can now choose which apps, programs, contacts and websites show up on your menu and pull them up or get in touch with a single click. (In previous versions, that would only work with programs.)
  • Apps that behave like regular programs – next to the missing Start Menu, users of Windows 8/8.1 most often complained about the intrusiveness of "Modern" apps that would inevitably occupy the full screen as they jumped to life. In Windows 10, "apps from the Windows Store now open in the same format that desktop programs do," meaning in a normal window that can be resized and moved around as you see fit. It also has a 'title bar' at the top with buttons for maximizing, minimizing and closing the window/app.
  • Multiple (aka virtual) desktops – everybody knows what a drag it is to have too many programs and documents crowded up on a single desktop; even taskbar geniuses will find it hard to keep track of everything they've opened up. Windows 10 allows you to create distinct desktops for different purposes and projects and switch between them in the course of your daily work.
  • A Task view button – designed to simplify multitasking, this new button in the task bar brings up an overview of all apps that are currently open and running so that you can swiftly move between them and get one-touch access to any desktop you created – similar to, but not fully congruent with the Mission Control feature in Mac OS X.
  • Snap enhancements – with Windows 7, Microsoft introduced Snap, a feature that helped you resize open windows by dragging them to the edge of the screen. Windows 10 adds multiple improvements, such as a "quadrant layout" that allows for up to four apps to be snapped on the same screen and "smart suggestions" that will tell you which other apps and programs lend themselves to additional snapping and how to fill screen space that's newly available because everything else has been sent to an extra desktop or Snap view.

Along with these office-oriented improvements, Win10 will also offer a couple of enhancements for touch operation. Judging from Belfiore's demonstration, it's probably safe to say that the general idea is to bring some of the desktop functionalities described above to the touch interface, for instance by adding a Task view button that shows up when you swipe in from the left and is larger than its desktop counterpart, but offers the same functionality. Another feature under development can be best described as automatic interface recognition; here, the GUI switches "in real time" to accommodate touch or keyboard input – an option that would be particularly useful with 2-in-1's. However, this part of the presentation remained relatively murky; so it's best to just wait for the technical preview.

Even though Myerson and Belfiore mainly talked about the obvious, they also tried to give their audience some insight into Microsoft's Win10 product strategy. Some of these statements stopped just short of admitting that Windows 8 bombed, e.g. when Belfiore went off into a little rant about the "duality" of classic desktop and Modern apps that spoiled the user experience. But more important was the message that the next Windows version is going to be Redmond's "greatest enterprise platform, ever" (Myerson); in other words, it'll have a considerable amount of enterprise-class features built in right from the start. As could be expected, the developers will be paying special attention to security and information protection: the official press release claims that user identities will be harder to compromise and that containers and data separation deployed at the application and file level will help prevent the loss of valuable information as it travels between PCs, tablets, USB drives and 'the cloud.' What's more, Microsoft promises to provide "in-place upgrade options from Windows 7 or Windows 8" that will render the current "wipe-and-reload scenarios obsolete" and plans to build tailor-made app stores that suit the specific needs of a single enterprise.

Enterprise customers that wish to evaluate Windows 10 early on (and exert some influence with regard to the final product) can join a so-called Windows Insider Program and get their hands on a preview build starting October 1. If everything goes as planned, Windows 10 will launch shortly after the next BUILD conference, in mid-2015.

For more in-depth and entertaining information about Win10, please watch the video on YouTube and see the following resources:

Blogging Windows: Announcing Windows 10 (Terry Myerson's official statement)

Live blogs covering the event: The Verge, ExtremeTech

Short, concise & funny: reports at The Inquirer (by Chris Merriman) and The Register (by Iain Thomson); the latter also offers a detailed analysis here (author: Tim Anderson).

 
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