If it’s taken Microsoft more than a year to repair the damage caused by Windows 8, should we be hopeful for Windows 9 and beyond? Following Microsoft's Build conference, we look at what the future holds for Windows.
Coming a year after the shaky launch of Windows 8, Microsoft’s first major update was more about coaxing the pitchforks out of the hands of the masses than it was about innovation and new features. Windows 8.1 duly arrived last October to patch the leakiest holes and bring back a Start button of sorts, but although it made for a better all-round experience, it also left lingering questions about the future.
Is Microsoft capable of perfecting an operating system that’s equally at home on PC and tablet? Will the next big release – we’ll call it Windows 9 for simplicity’s sake – even have the traditional desktop at all? And was Windows 8 a necessary revolution as part of a carefully planned roadmap, or just Microsoft tripping over its laces in a dash to catch up with Apple and Google? Read on to find out.
Windows 8.1 Update
While Windows 8.1 addressed the biggest complaints, it wasn’t exactly a reversal of Microsoft’s touch-first approach. Sure, the familiar Start button returned, but not in the form most of us wanted, as all it did was take you back into that childlike grid of app tiles that’s built primarily for tablets or PCs with touchscreens. It’s this element of Windows 8 that jars so much on the desktop, but there are signs that Microsoft is willing to concede some ground.
The awkwardly named Windows 8.1 Update arrived on April 8 with further concessions to keyboard and mouse users. If no touchscreen is detected, Windows now boots directly into the desktop by default as that’s where you’ll likely spend most of your time, and you can click that faux Start button to jump between interfaces. More of the Start screen is now mouse-friendly thanks to more useful right-click options, and it finally has a much more accessible power button in the top corner.
The taskbar – still incredibly useful for heavy desktop users – can now be accessed by hovering over the bottom edge of any app, and you can pin apps to it for easy access just like full desktop applications. Part of the early confusion in Windows 8 lay in users accidentally firing up a full-screen app and having no idea how to get back to the desktop, which this tweak should make less likely – as will the inclusion of standard close and minimise buttons at the top of every app, again revealed by hovering the mouse pointer.
It makes it easier to treat full-screen apps as just another program to quickly and easily jump between, so it’s a very welcome step forward, but it’s hardly the revamp many users have been calling for and it will do little to convert the Windows 7 holdouts. What about a more drastic reworking? What about Windows 9?
At the same time as revealing Windows 8.1 Update, Microsoft also used its Build 2014 conference keynote to tease what’s coming next. Don’t get too excited: it’s not Windows 9, and it probably won’t be anything more than a Windows 8.2, but more tweaks are definitely in the pipeline.
The next release will move even further away from the touch-first approach, allowing users to run those full-screen apps in windowed mode on the desktop. It’s a logical move, as anyone who’s been forced to run apps full-screen on a 27in monitor will tell you, but it’s also one nail in the coffin of that much-maligned Start screen. Combined (at last!) with the reintroduction of the Start menu – and one that neatly combines the Windows 7 text style with a Windows 8 tiled app section, like a mini Start screen – and you almost have an admission from Microsoft that forcing people into a brash new interface they hadn’t asked for was a colossal misstep.
Yet as Microsoft moves forward it’s clear that modern interface isn’t going away, it’s just becoming better integrated. “We set out to do this in a thoughtful way,” explains Terry Myerson, Executive Vice President of Operating Systems, in a Build 2014 blog post. “One where we could enable more productivity for customers working in desktop mode, while building smart bridges to the new modern user experience.” As he reiterates, the important thing for Microsoft is driving users to try out the apps in the Windows Store, which many desktop users have largely ignored.
That quote really highlights the major issue Microsoft is still figuring out how to address: how does a company with little market share on smartphones and tablets develop an app store as popular and as lucrative as those of Apple and Google? If the company believed the solution was simply to force one onto desktop users and expect acceptance, that was quickly dispelled, and much of the last year has been spent figuring out a halfway-house approach that minimises the disruption to our daily routine while also making changes more palatable.
Another announcement made at Build 2014 might help to solve that puzzle. “All of us want the same app experience across all devices,” said David Treadwell, Corporate Vice President of Operating Systems, “yet today there’s no easy way to create apps that work across all form factors.” Microsoft’s elegant solution is universal Windows apps.
Going a step further than an iOS app that can be bought once and used across iPhone and iPad, these universal apps will share around 90 percent of the same code across mobile devices, laptops and desktop PCs, and even the Xbox One console, allowing developers to build an experience that adapts to screen size and input method, and reaches a far greater potential audience. When combined with the ability to run apps in a window, and with Microsoft’s continuing heavy investment in cloud synching, it’s a genuinely exciting prospect that no other platform can currently match. Even Apple has stopped short of merging software across iOS and OS X, despite an awful lot of speculation in recent years.
Positive signs, then, but the issue for Microsoft right now isn’t so much that it’s still figuring out the best way to take advantage of the mobile future while retaining its huge desktop user base. It’s more that so far the company has done so in a way that seems - at best - confused and, at worst, downright patronising to its longest-serving customers.
Who knows if, internally at least, the long-term plan was to relegate the desktop to the background and build an all-touch future – it certainly looks like Microsoft saw that as a possibility. Given the poor early Windows 8 take-up, and the since steady flow of desktop-focused revisions, it seems hugely unlikely that Microsoft will be so bold and reckless in the future, particularly when you consider how many thousands of popular desktop applications would have to be recreated in app form.
No, the desktop is too entrenched to eliminate completely, which makes it harder to predict what form Windows 9 might take. Several inside sources have suggested it will arrive in spring 2015, and that it’s currently codenamed Threshold. It’s thought three versions are planned: one modern app-focused version built for consumer tablets and one traditional version that blends desktop and apps – much like Windows RT and Windows 8 today – along with a third volume-licensed Enterprise version that’s likely to double down on desktop features in a bid to win over businesses.
One intriguing possibility is that of streaming a desktop version to mobile devices from the cloud, perhaps to temporarily enable the more advanced features. Other than that, though, it’s a sensible roster, if hardly breaking new ground – and that sums up the problem Microsoft faces: Windows simply has too many users around the globe to risk tearing up the rulebook and starting over. Those hoping Windows 9 might be a drastic reimagining of the modern operating system will probably end up disappointed.
Do we need Windows 10?
If we can’t even say for sure what Windows 9 will do, there’s little point in speculating beyond that – or is there? The most exciting platform of the near future might not come from Microsoft at all, although you can be sure its R&D teams will have been glued to the news as Facebook spent $2 billion on virtual reality specialist Oculus. Previously viewed as a gaming company, Facebook’s involvement raises the tantalising possibility of a whole new virtual reality platform that could change the way we interact with our computers.
Never mind smartphone apps. Imagine making a call to a relative on the other side of the world, and being able to see them talk and gesture as if they were in the room with you. Or shopping for clothes by entering a virtual changing room and walking around yourself modelling a new outfit. The idea of being right there in the action of the next Battlefield game is hugely exciting, and the innovation possibilities – for once – are pretty much endless. Perhaps what we’re really hoping for isn’t a new approach to Windows, but a new interface full stop.
As exciting as that sounds, we just can’t see how a VR headset will make us more productive when typing an email or editing a macro in a spreadsheet, tasks which aren’t going to go away in the near future. It looks like there’ll be plenty of room in this future for Windows 10 after all.
Five features we want to see in Windows 9
Windows 9 may or may not arrive in 2015, but whatever does eventually emerge from Microsoft will need to address some key areas.
1 Price. Does it still make sense for users to buy Windows outright every few years? There’s an argument that Microsoft should simply make its next OS freely available. A more likely scenario is a switch to offering updates as an ongoing subscription service, as has been done with Office 365.
2. Focus on business. Such a change will perhaps be more palatable to businesses, which is another area that needs a lot of attention. If consumers struggled with the learning curve of Windows 8, that impact on productivity is magnified across a workforce. A stripped down Windows 9 for business is vital – particularly with companies clinging on to the now-defunct Windows XP.
3. Voice recognition. Microsoft unveiled the new personal assistant- Cortana - for Windows Phone 8.1, and Xbox One users can talk to their Kinect sensors. So how about full voice integration with Windows 9? All laptops have microphones these days, and we actually like the idea of donning a headset and – being very optimistic here – using normal language to perform everyday asks.
4. Virtual desktops. Other long-awaited revisions would be welcome, including Linux-style virtual desktops, something you can do only with third-party software such as Dexpot.
5. Better awareness. We also want an overhaul of when and how Windows Update does its business and the ability to tell Windows it’s installed on an SSD, so it can default non-vital files and applications to a larger data drive.