Microsoft will reveal "what's next for Windows" at a virtual event on June 24th, rumoured to include a UI refresh codenamed "Sun Valley".
The company held its virtual Build conference last week but although historically the Build event (first held in 2011) was focused on Windows, the news at the latest one was mainly focused on Azure and Microsoft 365 cloud services.
That said, CEO Satya Nadella promised in his opening talk that "soon we will share one of the most significant updates of Windows of the past decade… I've been self-hosting it over the past several months and I'm incredibly excited about the next generation of Windows."
On June 24, both Nadella and Chief Product Officer Panos Panay will be speaking on the subject, in a public virtual event.
When Windows 10 was released in July 2015, the company introduced "Windows as a service," the concept of incremental updates replacing the previous idea of major updates every three years or so and seemingly making "next generation" leaps less necessary.
This settled into a pattern of major feature updates every six months, other than for those on Windows Enterprise LTSC (Long Term Servicing Channel) with feature updates every two to three years. The Windows 10 name has been retained ever since, and Microsoft belatedly reached its goal of over 1 billion devices in March 2020. At Build, Nadella said that the operating system is now on 1.3 billion devices, boosted perhaps by renewed demand for PCs during pandemic-enforced lockdown around the world.
The pace of development in Windows, though, has been disappointing, and many of Microsoft's experiments have stuttered or failed. One might mention Live Tiles, or Cortana, or Windows Mixed Reality, or the My People feature, or Paint 3D, as ideas that Microsoft once hyped but which have had limited success.
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The failure and abandonment of Windows Phone – a key part of the original Windows 10 "one core" concept – did not help the overall strategy. On the application side, developers have suffered constant changes of direction with Universal Windows Platform (UWP) initially hyped as the way forward, and now being incorporated into Project Reunion. Another high-profile failure was Windows 10X, previewed with fanfare in October 2019 as a version of Windows for dual-screen PCs that also introduced a container model for applications, promising better security and quicker updates, but then formally abandoned last month, with VP John Cable stating that "instead of bringing a product called Windows 10X to market in 2021 like we originally intended, we are leveraging learnings from our journey thus far and accelerating the integration of key foundational 10X technology into other parts of Windows and products at the company."
The upside is that Microsoft successfully delivered the "as a service" update model, Windows 10 has matured and is a reliable modern operating system, and there have been unexpected successes, most notably Windows Subsystem for Linux which does a remarkable job of integrating Linux into Windows, with Linux GUI application support on the way, and has improved Windows 10 for developers.
The new Windows Terminal is an advance for command-line use. On the business side, features like integration between Windows 10 and Azure Active Directory, as well as automated deployment with Windows Autopilot, have been significant benefits.
A peek into Sun Valley
As for what comes next, there are several clues. There will likely be a UI refresh based on the project codenamed Sun Valley with possible features including rounded corners on buttons and windows – a leaked screenshot shows Windows Terminal with rounded corners – which would have the effect of making Windows appear softer and more in keeping with modern design trends. There are also hints of a floating start menu and jump lists. We may also see Microsoft using more of its forthcoming WinUI 3 framework in the Windows 10 built-in applications. Microsoft can also be expected to further tighten the integration between Windows 10 and its cloud platform.
At Build, Nadella insisted that "across all the opportunities I have highlighted today, Windows is implicit, it's never been more important."
The reality, though, is that for Microsoft, Windows has never been less important, with more Linux than Windows running on its Azure cloud, key applications cross-platform on Windows, iOS and Android, and even a first-party Android release in the form of Surface Duo. That said, 1.3 billion users is still huge, and Windows remains cemented into today's business world.
Square or rounded buttons will make little difference to most users, though usability tweaks and improvements will be welcome. The bigger question, perhaps, is whether Microsoft can progress with the architectural ideas it introduced with Windows 10X: using containers to isolate applications from one another and make Windows 10 more like an immutable operating system.
It may be impossible to do this without breaking too much legacy code; but features like Application Guard, which opens untrusted documents in isolated containers, perhaps show the path forward for making Windows more reliable and secure. ®