Microsoft finally announced the much-rumoured new version of Windows, called strangely enough, Windows 10. The build as shown is still an early “Technical preview” — the operating system is due to go through more extensive changes before it is released towards the end of 2015. Instead of a radical redesign of the user interface (UI), Windows 10 will be familiar to current Windows 8 users — it retains the “Modern UI” that you either love or hate but Microsoft has finally brought back the Start Menu in the Classic interface which additionally now allows you to pin the Modern UI’s Live Tiles in the Start Menu itself.
In the Classic desktop interface, the Start Menu has all the usual shortcuts to Control Panel and other settings on the left pane while the right pane has shortcuts to apps in the form of Live Tiles. This new Start Menu also carries over into the Modern UI — the touch-friendly Modern UI has now also gained the same shortcuts to system settings and other useful shortcuts in a left pane except that it’s been expanded to fill the screen. In fact, a better integration between Modern UI apps and the Classic UI is the main thrust of Windows 10 — whether you choose one or the other it will stay in that interface instead of Windows 8’s constant switching between the two.
For example, if you prefer the Classic interface you can open Modern UI apps in a window in the Classic interface and resize or snap them as if they were regular classic apps. For example, with a keyboard and mouse connected, Windows 10 will function like Windows 7 with tiled windows and the classic desktop. However when the the keyboard is disconnected, Windows 10 will prompt you to switch to an expanded view that will have a screen-filling Start Menu with similarly fullscreen apps.
There are other usability enhancements including a slightly better multitasking and tiling feature — where in Windows 7 and Windows 8 you could “snap” two windows side by side and have them auto resize to fit the window, you can now snap up to four windows and have them auto resize and fit in the screen. For power users Microsoft has also given some love to the Command Prompt and now allows for select, copy and paste between text in other windows and the Command Prompt window. Microsoft stresses that it is in fact sharing a much earlier build with the public than it traditionally would, to encourage feedback and make the final version better. The company also promises to show off more consumer oriented features at its developer conference in April.
As can be seen in the table linked above, the current version should be something along the lines of Windows 6, or rather a version of it, instead of 10. Very similar to how Apple turned its OS efforts upside down with the introduction of OSX in the early 2000s, Windows saw a major revision in 2007 that its still building off of. That said, Windows 10 shouldn’t be dusted under the rug as a rushed-to-production reactionary operating system; it’s likely Microsoft knew of Windows 8s shortcomings and had contingency in place. Everything today makes it seem like Microsoft knows what its doing. Keep in mind, this will be the first release of the flagship product under the captainship of new CEO Satya Nadella, and it will likely be handled differently than those of his predecessor – and that’s a good thing
The announcement mirrors the launch of a new Windows-optional MSN suite of services, another indication of Microsoft’s new direction that appears to be going in the right direction. MSN is now distancing itself from some of its components like Bing and Cortana, both of which should play a large role in the new OS. And finally, to be fair, the last version of Windows really wasn’t Windows 8 despite the name. And the next version really shouldn’t be Windows 9. As best as we can tell via the included parts of the prior major releases it might be more accurate to call it Windows 12, because just like Microsoft, we’re pretending that Windows ME and ’98 Special Edition never existed in the first place.
One OS To Rule Them All
Architecturally the biggest news is that Windows 10 is being designed to run across all device form factors. That means desktops, laptops, tablets, phablets and smartphones. “Windows 10 will run on the broadest amount of devices. A tailored experience for each device,” said Terry Myerson, Microsoft Executive VP of Operating Systems. “There will be one way to write a universal application, one store, one way for apps to be discovered purchased and updated across all of these devices.”Microsoft didn’t break down when we might see a Windows 10 smartphone and how that would impact/absorb Windows Phone (or even elaborate on the future for Windows Phone) but it does offer to clear insight into Microsoft’s long term road map. Update: Microsoft has now confirmed ‘Windows 10′ will also be the next major version of Windows Phone. What devices get the upgrade and how Microsoft will handle it remains to be seen.
The Start Menu Is Back
The cat has been out the bag for some time, but Microsoft has finally confirmed the Start Menu will return. The leaks were spot on and it will combine both aspects of the classic Windows 7 start menu with apps from the Metro/Modern UI. Searching within the Start Menu will now perform a web search as well. Crucially its layout can be customised so apps can be removed or resized and the flexibility and personalisation potential of the Start Menu should win back fans disillusioned about its removal in Windows 8.
Better Touch/Keyboard And Mouse Integration
Microsoft has taken criticism seriously about the jarring nature of moving between touch and the keyboard and mouse elements of Windows 8. Microsoft is calling the new approach ‘Continuum’ and it is an umbrella term for a better merger between to different input methods. Continuum will be able to automatically switch between modes by detecting on how users interact with their device. It also carries over to design aspects like the new Start Menu, windowed apps within the desktop and so forth. “We’re trying to be thoughtful about a UI that goes across all devices,” explained Joe Belfiore, Corporate Vice President of the Operating Systems Group at Microsoft. He admits Continuum remains a work in progress with refinements to things like the Charms Bar (yes it is still there) set to be an ongoing process through the life of the public beta and right up to release (more on that later).
Another leaked feature Microsoft confirmed today was virtual desktops. Microsoft didn’t give the feature an official name at this stage, but it works much like the long used multiple desktops on Linux and Exposé on Mac OS X. The view can be triggered with a new ‘task view’ button which both allows users to launch a new virtual desktop and jump between them. Interestingly the taskbar can be customised to look different/relevant to each desktop allowing a simple leap from work to home modes, for example. Microsoft said all open programs in the virtual desktops will continue to run in the background, which makes for some interesting memory management challenges but also greatly increases the potential productivity of Windows as well as de-cluttering the desktop space.
Pricing / Availability
It has been much speculated that Windows 10 may be given away free to upgraders or involve a nominal fee, but Microsoft revealed no information about this in either the presentation or Q&A afterwards. What we did learn is a technical preview of Windows 10 will be made available to users later this week (Microsoft is stressing it is only for advanced users and developers at this stage) and that an official release would not follow until ‘later in 2015’. This suggests the OS is not as far along as many expected and Microsoft is keen to develop it in conjunction with user feedback.
What Will Still Don’t Know: A Lot
Perhaps what is almost as interesting as what was revealed about Windows 10 is what Microsoft kept to itself. In addition to no news on pricing, Microsoft also didn’t touch on performance (install size and minimum hardware requirements), Cortana integration (the voice assistant in Windows Phone 8.1), give a solid release time frame or go into any detail on how Windows 10 will handle scaling on high resolution screens – crucial given 4k monitors and super high resolution laptops are quickly gaining momentum. On the flip side what we did see is a more open Microsoft. A company, perhaps shaken by the decidedly mixed reaction to Windows 8 (however fair or unfair), that is now keen to try and mix the best aspects of Windows 7 and Windows 8 into a more user friendly experience. This means releasing early builds, issuing rapid fire updates and developing in conjunction with ongoing user feedback.
Is choosing the ‘Windows 10’ moniker a step too far though? “It’s a name that resonated best with what we’ll deliver,” explained Myerson. Many would argue the struggles of Windows Phone and Windows 8 have put Microsoft into a terminal decline, but tonight’s announcement – while thin on details – suggests there is still life in the old dog yet.