Microsoft gave the world a first look at its next operating system, Windows 10, at an intimate press event in San Francisco on Tuesday.
On the surface, Windows 10 looks lame and boring. It’s a throwback to the desktop-centric computing interface we’ve been used to since Windows 95.
But that’s a good thing.
Let’s look at the state of things now: Windows 8 is a mess.
From the beginning, reviewers, including myself, panned Windows 8 for being too clunky and confusing. Windows 8 tried to leapfrog the current state of computing, much of which is still done on the desktop, into a mobile-centric universe. But in the process, Microsoft neutered the experience for its millions of desktop users.
Windows 8 eradicated the familiar Start menu in favour of a tablet-optimised Start screen that was a disaster to navigate with a mouse and keyboard. Behind that touch interface was the traditional desktop mode for running classic Windows apps. But that forced users to switch between “tablet” mode and “desktop” mode to use certain apps. On top of that, many apps like Internet Explorer came in two versions, one for each interface. Confusing!
Windows 10 appears to be what Windows 8 should have been all along. I only got to play with it for a few minutes after Tuesday’s event, but what I saw makes me feel a lot better about the future of Windows, mostly because it feels like Microsoft has finally realised its boo-boo with Windows 8 and is refocusing on the core desktop experience.
In short, Microsoft is moving forward by looking back to what made Windows useful in the first place.
With Windows 10, you can run any app on the desktop, even Windows 8 apps that were originally designed for touch. Before, those apps kicked you into a tablet-y full-screen mode, which was a pain to operate with a mouse and keyboard. You can even run Windows 8 apps next to older Windows 7 apps. Most importantly, though, the Start menu is back. It looks very similar to what you’re used to seeing in Windows 7, but includes the popular Live Tiles from Windows 8.
You can breathe easily again.
Windows 10 didn’t forget about touchscreen users, though. A lot of PCs these days have touchscreens or come in hybrid configurations, meaning they can double as a regular laptop and a tablet. Windows 10 has a feature called Continuum that can automatically detect what configuration you’re using and adjust the interface accordingly. For example, if you’re using a Surface with the keyboard cover snapped in, you’ll get the old-school desktop mode. If you remove the keyboard, Windows 10 will ask if you want to enter tablet mode, which is optimised for touch and sort of looks like the Start screen on Windows 8.
Most importantly, desktop users will never have to worry about navigating through Windows 8’s Start screen ever again.
Assuming Continuum works as advertised, it seems like Microsoft will finally make good on its promise of building an operating system that is versatile enough to work on just about any device. Instead of something like Windows 8 and the Surface, which even in its third generation still feels like a half-baked product, Windows 10 has the potential to finally unlock the power of that hybrid form factor while still appealing to desktop users.
Windows 10 is really Microsoft’s attempt to finally win over the zillions of people still running older versions of Windows. According to Business Insider Intelligence, 53% of desktop users are running Windows 7. Only 12% are using Windows 8. Meanwhile, 24% are still running Windows XP, which launched 13 (!) years ago. Microsoft has stopped supporting Windows XP, so those users will need to upgrade soon. But for many, especially enterprise users, Windows 8 simply won’t work.
Windows 10 has a lot of potential, though. Microsoft says apps made for Windows 10 will be able to run on any device, from desktops with giant monitors all the way down to tablets and smartphones. That’s a dream for developers, and if it works the way Microsoft says it will, Windows 10 will have millions of apps ready to run on any device on day one.
That’s going to be huge for Microsoft. Regular consumers may still dig the allure of Macs and iPhones, but Windows 10 is a big opportunity for Microsoft to keep its enterprise customers locked in post-Windows XP and Windows 7.
Imagine you run a small business. You’ve been on Windows XP since the early 2000s. Now that Microsoft has stopped supporting XP, you need to upgrade. Windows 8 doesn’t make much sense since most of your work is still done on desktops, and everyone knows Windows 8 totally stinks on the desktop. Windows 7 is great for desktops, but it will be the next to lose support in a few years and you’ll be back to where you are now.
Microsoft must hope that Windows 10 is the answer for companies like this. With nearly 80% of the world’s desktops running old versions of Windows, there are a bunch of customers out there ready for an upgrade. Enterprise customers will still be able to run their apps on a modern operating system, but won’t have to worry about retraining their employees how to work with a brand-new interface. And as more computing at businesses shift to mobile, Windows 10 will (in theory) be just as useful on phones on tablets, further enticing those companies to buy more Windows machines.
I don’t think you’re going to see Windows 10 PCs invading dorm rooms and coffee shops like Macs do, but Microsoft is poised to kick off a massive upgrade cycle in the enterprise.