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What you need to know about Microsoft Windows 11: It will run Android apps

The operating system they said shouldn't exist

Microsoft on Thursday announced Windows 11, or tried to as an uncooperative video stream left many viewers of the virtual event flummoxed by intermittent transmission gaps in the opening minutes.

The technical issues proved bad enough that Matt Velloso, Technical Advisor to the CEO at Microsoft, suggested trying the YouTube video stream as an alternative to the Microsoft-hosted one.

But with some of the features already known as a result of a leaked build last week, the impact of the intermittent video dropouts was less than it might have been.

Windows 11 has a new KDE-esque user-interface and new features like Snap Layouts, Snap Groups and Desktops (for organizing apps into collections and multitasking). Chat from Microsoft Teams has been integrated in the taskbar, Widgets have taken the place of Timeline, and there are various gaming-oriented enhancements like Auto HDR.

A summary of developer-level changes is here. The list includes the ability to mix native Windows-on-Arm code with emulated x64 code in processes and modules on Arm-powered PCs, allowing native Arm apps to run even if they still have some x64 dependencies in them.

Windows 11 shouldn't exist because 10 was supposed to be the final major version number of Windows. Yet it is due be officially released around November or December this year as a free upgrade for "eligible" users. Your PC will need UEFI Secure Boot firmware and a TPM 2.0 chipset to run it. And you'll need an internet connection and a Microsoft account during setup of Windows 11 Home.

"The free upgrade will begin to roll out to eligible Windows 10 PCs this holiday and continuing into 2022," Microsoft said. "Next week, we’ll begin to share an early build of Windows 11 to the Windows Insider Program."

There's a tool you can download from Microsoft to check whether you can use Windows 11; Redmond blithely suggests you "consider purchasing a new PC" if your system doesn't meet the requirements. Below is the launch video.

Youtube video of the Windows 11 launch

Under the hood, Windows 11 is largely Windows 10, and that's perhaps for the best. "Windows 11 is built upon the same core code base as Windows 10," said Forrester VP and principal analyst J.P. Gownder, in an email to The Register.

"That's good news; it means that the application and driver 'breakage' that famously plagued OS releases like Windows Vista is unlikely to occur. And Win32 apps will still be able to run natively on Windows 11."

Panos Panay, chief product officer at Microsoft, opened the shaky presentation with a tear-jerker monologue likening his passion for Windows to the emotion evoked by his home and family. Then again, he usually does.

Gone are the days of feeds-and-speeds marketing it seems; Microsoft wants to be loved, and with Windows 11, the mega-corp might just rekindle the passion of fans and even turn the heads of those who have focused more on competing platforms.

Adopting Android apps and kicking Apple

The software giant surprised viewers with word that developers will be able to distribute their apps through the Microsoft Store without sharing revenue and that Windows machines will be able run Android apps.

"We also want you to be able to bring any technology, the technology that you love to the Store, whether you've already built it or you're building it now, and it's a PWA or a Win32 app, or a UWP," said Panay. "We just want to make it easier for you to bring it to the Store."

"We also want to help you build your business," he said, "whether you use the commerce engine that we help you with, and you want industry leading rev share from that, or bring your own commerce engine. And if you do bring your own commerce engine, you keep 100 per cent of your revenue, we keep zero."

App developers who choose to rely on Microsoft's commerce engine in the Store can keep 85 per cent of revenue, or 88 per cent for games. The Store will distribute a wider range of apps too – Win32, .NET, UWP, Xamarin, Electron, React Native, Java and Progressive Web Apps. Come July 28, third-party commerce engines will be an option.

That alone ought to thrill Windows-oriented developers and vex Apple executives frantically trying to defend the need to keep iOS hermetically sealed from sideloaded code. But Panay had another molotov to throw.

"Before we move on from the Store, just one more small surprise: Android apps coming to Windows," he said,"and I mean coming to Windows, they can be integrated in Start, they'll be integrated in your taskbar. … And they're discoverable through the Microsoft Store using the Amazon Appstore."

Wintel relationship is back

Pany explained that Windows will use Intel Bridge Technology to make this work, but didn't provide specifics or commit to when the Android app integration would be functional.

Intel, however, has published a bit more detail: "Intel Bridge Technology is a runtime post-compiler that enables applications to run natively on x86-based devices, including running those applications on Windows," it said.

"Intel’s multi-architecture XPU strategy provides the right engines for the right workloads by integrating leading CPU cores, graphics technology, artificial intelligence accelerators, image processors and more, in a single, verified solution."

It perhaps goes without saying that Apple's Arm-based M1 chips and their successors have not been invited to this party.

Steve Kleynhans, veep of digital workplace infrastructure and operations at Gartner, told The Register in an email that Windows 11 is simultaneously a big deal and business as usual.

... it is mostly just Windows 10 with an overdue facelift and some extra under-the-covers modernizing

"On the one hand it is a big marketing event ... something to stir up excitement with consumers with the overall PC (and Windows related) ecosystem," he explained.

"It’s a rallying point for the industry – something that has been missing since Windows 10 launched 6 years ago. On the other hand it is mostly just Windows 10 with an overdue facelift and some extra under-the-covers modernizing."

Kleynhans sees Windows 11 renewing consumer and developer interest in the PC and countering the attention regularly captured by Apple.

"For businesses, it is just another feature update in the annual series of feature updates they have to deal with in the new 'Windows as a Service' world," he said. "The new UX isn't so much of a change that it would require user retraining, and the OS itself is managed and deployed, just like everything they have dealt with for the past few years."

"The biggest question for most enterprises will be when to cut over, and at this point Microsoft hasn't yet provided much detailed guidance on what the coexistence roadmap looks like."

This at least may persuade some people to flip to version 11: Cortana will no longer pop up during the first boot of the OS. Internet Explorer will be disabled, and S Mode will only be available for Windows 11 Home, too.

Microsoft is the new Apple

CEO Satya Nadella concluded the presentation with a statement of purpose that positions Microsoft – the monopolist of decades past – as the champion of openness, at least compared to its rival Apple.

"Windows recognizes that there is no personal computing without personal agency," he said. "Personal computing requires choice. We need to nurture and grow our own agency over computing itself. We want to remove the barriers that too often exist today and provide real choice and connection."

"We need to be empowered to choose the applications we run, the content we consume, the people we connect to, and even how we allocate our own attention," he said. "Operating systems and devices should mold to our needs, not the other way around."

Apple once ran an ad campaign that began, "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently."

Today, that's Microsoft. Nadella, if he's to be taken as his word, believes Windows can co-exist with Linux and Android, and be better for it.

He's acknowledging that connectivity, across the internet and the cloud, and developer relations matter more than operating system boundaries. And in throwing down a gauntlet in defense of openness, he may insulate Microsoft from anticipated antitrust rules targeting platform restrictions.

Queen's 1978 song Bicycle Race includes a passage that goes, "I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike, I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like." Apple co-founder Steve Jobs extended that notion of freedom to computers, stating that computers are "the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds."

But those who develop software for Apple platforms have become increasingly frustrated with the iGiant's restrictions, to the point that Epic Games sued to undo them.

Last November, Jeff Johnson, who runs Lapcat Software, said via Twitter, "Apple is killing general purpose computing. No other way to put it. The bicycle for the mind becomes the bike lock."

Windows 11 is ready to ride. ®

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