On Wednesday, Microsoft will give the world its first comprehensive look at Windows 10, the next version of its most famous product.
It’s expected to be a step back from the radical changes in Windows 8, and to smooth out the differences between Windows on a PC, tablet, and phone.
So how did we get here? The story begins a long time ago — in 1985…
It's hard to understate how big Windows 95 was. Jay Leno joined Bill Gates on stage at the launch event. The Rolling Stones song 'Start Me Up' was used in ads. People lined up to buy it -- like they do with the iPhone today.
In 2001, we got Windows XP. It was the first big update since Windows 95, and the first consumer version of Windows to break completely from MS-DOS and use the same underlying technology as Windows NT -- the more stable and powerful version of Windows that had been used on servers and 'workstation' PCs.
Windows Vista took Microsoft five years to build, and there were a lot of missteps and resets along the way. It was not a hit, and former CEO Steve Ballmer has said that the time and effort the company spent on Vista -- instead of pursuing new opportunities in mobile -- was one of his biggest regrets.
This is where things really started to go south. Windows Mobile 6 was a continuation of Microsoft's five-year-old mobile platform, and came out in February 2007 -- right after the first iPhone was announced. It was still built for use with a stylus and keyboard, not finger touch, and it looked ridiculously rudimentary next to the iPhone. But Microsoft in public downplayed the threat, with Steve Ballmer doubting anybody would ever pay $US500 for a smartphone.
Fortunately for Microsoft, it was able to recover from the Vista debacle on the desktop. Windows 7, which came out in 2009, was basically a polish-up of Vista, but much more stable. It's still very popular in businesses. In fact, one of the big challenges with Windows 10 will be getting enterprises to upgrade from Windows 7.
At the same time, Microsoft knew it needed an answer to the iPhone. In 2010, it released the first version of Windows Phone. It was a clean break with Windows Mobile, with a totally new finger-friendly design and a bunch of new features. But the iPhone and Android were already growing by leaps and bounds, and the new platform did not take off.
The iPad came out in 2010, and it early success spooked Microsoft into another misstep. Instead of continuing to adapt on 30 years of of desktop success, Microsoft took a lot of the concepts from the unsuccessful Windows Phone operating system and brought them over to the main version of Windows.
The goal was to make an operating system that functioned equally well on touch-screen tablets, to compete against the iPad and regular PCs. The main interface had no start button, huge colourful boxes instead of icons, and changed how basic tasks were done.
...but it was buried under the new interface.
As a result, a lot of traditional Windows users were confused or put off, and Windows 8 never took off. Instead of coming up with an operating system that was great on both PCs and tablets, Microsoft had built one that was great on neither. PC sales have plunged more than 12% in the two years after Windows 8 was released, although this can't be blamed entirely on Windows 8 -- people have more choices now, and the overall economy has been weak.
Microsoft also updated its mobile platform at the same time as it released Windows 8. It looked the same on top, but there was a lot of new work under the covers: basically, Windows Phone was now based on the same underlying technology (Windows NT) as Microsoft's PC and server operating systems.
But the change didn't help much. Windows Phone is still a distant third behind Android and iOS.
Last year, Microsoft updated both its PC/tablet and mobile operating systems, and began to bring them closer together. It also used Windows 8.1 to reverse some of the big changes it had made with Windows 8, like returning the Start menu.
Windows 10 is expected to continue in this vein, bringing the PC, tablet, and phone platforms even closer together and making the traditional Windows desktop more easily available if you're using a keyboard and mouse.
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