Microsoft unveiled on Wednesday an operating system it presumes will work well across all devices. It highlighted cross-platform apps and a sassy Cortana. We saw a new web browswer, heard a new catchphrase, and were introduced to a new technology that could either change computing or become the next great gimmick. But the lasting message from its Windows 10 consumer preview is this: Microsoft isn’t giving up on the operating system business, and it wants Windows 10 to be easy, fun, and everywhere.
Windows boss Terry Myerson talked up Microsoft’s “more personal computing” approach to Windows — a tagline that’s bound to become as common in Redmond as CEO Satya Nadella’s incessant talk of productivity and a mobile-first, cloud-first world. One element of “more personal computing” is what Myerson called mobility of experience, and this is the element of Windows 10 that will most likely yield customer satisfaction.
“The number of smart devices … is exploding around us,” Myerson said. “It should be easy to put one device down and pick another up, and continue where you left off. The technology needs to get out of the way.”
Windows 8 had an interface problem. Microsoft wanted the OS to be consistent across devices, but the tile interface confused PC users, which put Windows developers in backpedal mode (8.1’s selling point was a more traditional desktop and start menu). Windows 10, it appears, won’t have such an issue. Interfaces are tailored to each device, and with the Continuum feature, tablets can shift from a PC to a touch-based interface when they are disconnected from a keyboard.
So the interfaces won’t jar people, which should help facilitate the use of Windows 10 on multiple devices. But more important than interfaces are the apps Windows 10 can support, and this is where Microsoft has truly set forth an improvement. Universal app compatibility might be Windows 10’s best selling point, both for users and developers. Signature apps like Word and features like Cortana will be compatible with every Windows 10 device — even Xbox — and Microsoft says developers will be able to easily create applications that can run on phones, tablets, and desktop computers.
“We intend to deliver everything you need for productivity, and we intend to give you that mobile experience tailored for each device size you’re on,” says Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s vice president of devices.
The cross-platform apps should be easier to use, too. Office and Outlook features are now available on all devices, and they appear to be less clunky. For example, formatting Word documents on a phone is now done by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, which accesses the familiar ribbon of options. Web browsing should get easier, as well. Belfiore showed off Spartan, a streamlined web browser with Cortana built in. Spartan allows users to annotate and share web pages, but its most valuable aspect might be that it’s less cumbersome than Internet Explorer. In look and practice, Spartan appears to be more similar to Chrome and Firefox than IE.
Better apps that work on all platforms will do wonders for Windows’ ease of use and adoption. Consumers are more likely to switch to one Windows device if developers make more apps for it, and those consumers are more likely to adopt a suite of Windows devices if those apps work harmoniously across gadgets.
But Microsoft still has an image problem with consumers. Windows has long been the work-only OS, so Microsoft is using games to break the mold. With Windows 10, users will be able to connect with Xbox Live, stream console-specific games to a tablet or PC, and PC gamers will be able to play with companions on a console.
This is Microsoft pushing Windows into the “fun” realm, though it could render the Xbox console moot in coming years. The bleed of Xbox gaming functions to PC and desktop apps to Xbox essentially turns the console into another PC. But this move associates the social and practical aspect of gaming with Windows 10, which will do wonders in helping consumers associate Windows with more than the Office suite.
“Games, as a form of entertainment, are incredibly personal. We’re not just viewers; we’re participants,” said Phil Spencer, who leads Xbox. “Gaming on Windows 10 will be more social and interactive by bringing together the best of the games you play, the people you play with, and the epic moments they create.”
By all indications, Windows 10 will be a significant upgrade over Windows 8 and 8.1. (Technical builds will drop next week for PCs and in February for phones. No official release date was offered.) But a deft business move could be the key to widespread adoption of the OS. Upgrading to Windows 10 will be free in the first year for Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 users, a significant move because frugal Windows 8 users will be more likely to ditch the unpopular OS, and Windows 7 users no longer receive full service support from Microsoft.
Microsoft’s flashier demonstrations were important. Cortana will clearly be a defining aspect of Windows devices, and the virtual assistant has more personality than Apple’s Siri or Google Now. Windows Holographic is by all means amazing, and it could reinvent the way we game, compute, and explore space. But we don’t know if people want a sassy virtual assistant, and Windows Holographic and HoloLens could be a ramped up version of Google Glass, which has been a failure.
What we’ll likely remember down the road is the strategic pivots Microsoft made with Windows on Wednesday, ones that will change Windows’ work-first reputation. Nadella summed it up best: “We want to move from people needing Windows, to choosing Windows, to loving Windows.”