With Windows 8, Microsoft made bold changes, such as replacing Windows 7's familiar Start menu with a tiled, touch-friendly Start screen. But bold isn't always synonymous with successful. Unfortunately for Microsoft, many longtime Windows users hated the OS's new look.
With Windows 10, which was introduced as a technical preview Sept. 30, Microsoft's making changes again. When the final version of the OS finally hits the market next year, it will include a revamped Start menu, virtual desktops, and a host of other features designed to show the company's continued investment in the desktop UI.
In the short term, Microsoft wants to compel upgrades from the Windows XP, Vista, and 7 users who've resisted Win 8's touch-centric UI. If the company's successful, Windows 10's shift back to mouse-based navigation will no doubt play an important role. But over the long run, Windows 10's boldest change isn't about new features; it's about philosophy.
Windows 8 suggested Microsoft was somewhat tone deaf to user needs. If this weren't so, the company wouldn't have so massively missed the shift toward mobile devices, and it wouldn't have responded to that shift with Win 8's half-baked, hodgepodge UI. But if Microsoft didn't pay enough attention to users before, the company wants you to know it's listening now.
Terry Myerson and Joe Belfiore, the executive VPs who run Microsoft's OS efforts, emphasized during this week's Windows 10 reveal that the new OS has to address the needs of a massive user base. That's no small task. Enterprises and consumers, knowledge workers and field workers, executives and students -- all of them use Windows, and all of them bring somewhat different expectations and needs when they do so. To assess and serve its diverse base, Microsoft is involving customers earlier and more transparently than ever before, starting with enterprise-oriented PC users. The company not only made the Win 10 preview available earlier and to a larger user base than it has with past Windows previews, but also included an app to solicit and collect user feedback.
Windows 10's final release is at least six months away, so it remains to be seen how well Microsoft implements its new, more inclusive intentions. But the company is off to a good start. Myerson and Belfiore said Windows 10 should provide an unadulterated desktop experience. They also said it should be instantly familiar to longtime Windows users, but packed with productivity-boosting new features that users will organically discover over time. More than a few IT decision-makers have avoided Win 8 due to fears that it will require too much employee training, so if Windows 10 delivers outstanding ease-of-use, enterprise upgrades could follow.
Touch is part of the Windows 10 equation, even on the desktop, but the OS won't attempt "one UI to rule them all," as its immediate predecessor did. Windows 10 will look different on different sorts of devices, even though all versions of the OS will share common app store and device management models. In coming months, Microsoft will discuss consumer-oriented tablet and smartphone versions of Windows 10. But for now, the company hopes this week's enterprise and desktop-oriented preview convinces mouse-and-keyboard users that they aren't afterthoughts.
Even so, Microsoft faces an uphill climb. Overall, Windows remains the dominant PC platform, but both Windows 7 and Windows XP, the latter of which isn't even an actively supported product, have more users than Windows 8 and 8.1. According to Web-tracking firm Net Applications, Windows 8 and 8.1 combined for only 12.3% of PC users in September. That's down a surprising 1.1 percentage points compared to August, and the largest month-over-month decrease the OS has suffered yet. Windows 8/8.1 has less market share than Windows Vista did at the same point in its release cycle -- which is pretty damning, given that Vista is generally considered the exemplar of Windows flops.
Other recent data indicates Microsoft is feeling pressure at both ends of the market, with Apple computers outselling flashy Windows 2-in-1s at the high end, and Chromebooks eating into Windows territory at the low end. Windows 8 and 8.1's recent downward trend might reverse itself in the near future, thanks to upcoming ultra-slim hybrids with new Intel processors, as well as a growing number of budget devices that undercut Chromebook prices. But it's clear Microsoft's current flagship OS just doesn't have enough appeal; as Myerson said Tuesday, it's time for a new Windows.
Going forward, Microsoft's revenue models will rely less on Windows licenses and more on the software and cloud services that Windows users run. To maximize these new streams, Microsoft needs as many users as possible on its newest platforms. Windows 8 and 8.1 have failed to advance this strategy, but will Windows 10 do the trick? Check out 11 of the biggest changes in the preview build, and let us know what you think in the comments.Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio