Let’s be clear at the outset as to what Microsoft gained and subsequently lost. Windows had won the war for the consumer desktop, and the war for the business desktop. To bother measuring desktop market share for Windows was about as pointless as to bother sampling Mount Rushmore for limestone.
Windows Vista proved that both consumers and businesses would reject a major operating system release if the product were less enjoyable to use than the previous one. Windows 7 showed that the damage caused by Vista was not catastrophic.
But the computing device market is extremely different than it was six years ago. For one, I’ve had to broaden the phrase to “computing device” because PCs are only a part of it. Windows 8 erased many people’s mental association of Microsoft with new and better technology.
The End of Duality
The kernel of Windows 8 was never a bad operating system, and 8.1 was significantly improved. The design of Windows 8 was horrendous — possibly one of the most historic disappointments since the Apple III. You don’t graft two disparate operating motifs together and expect people to accept them both.
Windows 10 repairs the damage to the system’s design most of the way. At issue now is whether this comes too late for the product to resume its place in the public mindset. Some have argued that no other operating system could compete with Windows in this space, even Mac OS.
But that’s not really the issue. Windows, and the software that runs on Windows, were the justification for the entire PC market leading up to 2011. This market has decayed in the absence of a strong OS.
I have made this case before: If Windows 10 fails, the PC as we have come to know it will cease to exist. Perhaps you’ve noticed, not everyone likes it when I make this case. When Microsoft decided to make Windows 10 effectively an upgrade to Windows 8.1 and Windows 7, some argued my point had become moot.
Not so fast. I do expect the uptake for Microsoft’s offer to be huge, and for Windows 8.1 to be cast aside like a used Dixie cup. But few are actually paying for this upgrade. So if users find no reason to “love,” to use CEO Satya Nadella’s term, the new design and capture the public’s attention again, Windows 10’s failure will be measured by the precipitous decline of the PC as a whole.
The return of the lower left corner Start Menu will be most welcome. But what I mean by the “unified desktop” is the reassembly of all the operating elements in one place. No longer are apps written for Windows’ latest “Universal” runtime (the ones designed to also run on phones) relegated to a completely different world.
For now, the Start Menu will be the platform for running Universal apps in “live tile” mode. There will be some who think this placement to be a bit awkward. Live tiles, you may recall, feed small chunks of information, often as rotating slides — for example, the title of the most recent mail message, the next major appointment, or this week’s five-day weather forecast.
In a perfect world, the proper venue for some live tiles (certainly not all) would be the main panel of the Desktop itself, which most users don’t actually utilize for other purposes. Throughout the public preview period, there was evidence that Microsoft did experiment with this idea.
Action Center, which premiered way back in Windows 7 (and which was the #1 feature on my Top 10 list back then), is promoted to a one-touch notifications area that’s just as sensible on a PC desktop as it is on a smartphone. To be honest, Action Center has become what the right pane of the Start Menu should have become: a location for the latest updates on incoming information that’s pertinent to the user.
Now that Microsoft truly is adopting a continuous update strategy, beginning Wednesday, we may not have to wait until a “Windows 11” (or “14,” if they were to keep skipping around) to see an incremental feature addition, such as live tiles on the Desktop. In a similar way that Google uses incremental feature updates to make Android worse, Microsoft will begin rolling out feature updates along with security updates as needed.
Businesses will have opportunity to review these updates before installing them, so they never have to accept a feature that breaks their existing software. (I’ll have a lot more to say about this major improvement in the coming days.)
Microsoft bothered to name its new Desktop motif “Continuum,” although no one outside of Microsoft should call it anything but Windows. All apps share the same workspace, no matter whose runtime they use. The new Mail app that ships with Windows 10 can share the workspace with the Office desktop apps — which, by the way, run on the .NET runtime.
Many Windows users caught their first glimpse of Continuum at Microsoft’s Build and Ignite conferences in late spring. At Ignite, Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore showed how the same app running in differently sized environments with different sensitivities (e.g., touchscreen here, no touchscreen there) changes its appearance to blend in.
“You write the app once,” Belfiore told developers. “It can adapt to different screen sizes and different inputs, and if you like, you can tailor it as well.
“And that’s the magic that enables the Universal Windows platform to get a single app from a small phone to a small tablet to a medium-sized PC to a large PC to the Surface Hub,” he continued, referring to the company’s wall-sized touchscreen console, “to HoloLens and to the Xbox One.”
If a person’s first Windows experience was with Windows 8, then the change may perhaps seem like magic.
The greatest failure of Windows 8’s design was not the absence of the Start Menu or the Start Button (which was brought back for 8.1). It was the imposition on the user of two different worlds for two different classes of apps. Windows 8’s Mail app resided off the Desktop, in a separate world originally called “Metro” up until Microsoft settled a trademark dispute and dropped that name in favor of “Modern.”
In Windows 8, active “Modern” apps didn’t even share the Taskbar with Desktop applications. And under Windows 8 and 8.1, apps that appeared superb and smart on smartphones looked like grade school phonics textbooks when scaled to the size of an HDTV.
That’s because these “Metro” apps didn’t really know the specifications of the devices they ran on. Although it was technically feasible, it wasn’t convenient for a Mail app, for example, to recognize it was running on a PC with a 22-inch non-touch monitor.
Now Microsoft shifts the burden of integrating applications for different devices, onto the shoulders of the developer. But that’s where it belongs.
For the first time (unbelievably), Microsoft is just now attacking the problem of how apps should work when they are small. We’re seeing the emergence of a hybrid design motif, with menu buttons in a bar along the left side of the window where a thumb can reach them, and a now truly universal “hamburger menu” (three stacked lines) in the upper left corner.
Perhaps the clearest signal to date that Microsoft’s designers finally “get it” (after five years of pain) is the inclusion of a simple button that lets the user choose whether the environment should work like a PC or a touchscreen tablet. It’s the “Tablet Mode” button, and after a bit of shuffling around during the preview period, it’s now located on the bottom of Action Center.
Switching to and from Tablet Mode is a two-step process rather than just one, as it was for some of the earlier preview builds, but this way it doesn’t happen by accident. In Tablet Mode, the parts of the Windows 8 idea that were perfectly fine on a touchscreen tablet, but horrible on a larger non-touch monitor with a mouse, are switched on.
Specifically, the Start Menu returns to full screen, although the scroll direction is vertical (as it should be) instead of horizontal. The Taskbar becomes a controls bar more like what you’d find on a large smartphone, and the icons for running apps disappear (although there’s a permanent setting for bringing them back).
A hamburger menu appears at the upper left, where you’d find it on an Android phone; this brings up links to commonly used features and settings.
This is the honest truth: If Windows 8 had adopted this layout instead of the horizontal scrolling separate world of incompatible, incomprehensible apps, it would not have been nearly as bad as it was.
The Windows 10 unified desktop will not be the component that brings people back to liking, if not “loving,” Windows — at least not right away. But this is the step Microsoft needed to take today, in order for a future buildout of Windows, whatever it’s called, to begin exciting the public’s imagination again.
The chances of that happening are less remote than they were in January.