According to the rumor mill, Microsoft will unveil the next big release of Windows, code-named “Threshold,” at the end of September, with a preview version available to the public shortly after.
We already know a little about what will be in what will probably end up being called Windows 9. Microsoft has officially announced the return of the Start menu, with a new, modern design, as well as the ability of mobile (Metro-style) apps to run in windows on the Windows desktop. More recent rumors suggest that virtual desktops will be added and Windows 8’s signature charms menu will vanish. Cortana might even make an appearance.
Enterprise customers, who pay dearly for Windows licenses, want as little change as possible.
I’ve read a lot of discussion about whether this is Microsoft’s last “big bang” Windows release. As far as I’m concerned, that question was answered nearly two years ago. That honor belongs to Windows 8, which was perhaps the biggest big-bang release ever, introducing a completely new app model and blowing up a lot of the user interface conventions that Windows users had previously taken for granted.
In a world of big-bang releases, the Windows 8 feature set would have been frozen when it shipped. The many new features that have been added to Windows 8 in a series of updates over the past 18 months would have been saved for “Threshold,” which in turn would have been frozen when it ships next year.
A better metaphor for this release might be the crack of a starter’s pistol, marking the beginning of a new stage in a very long race. What gets delivered this fall as a preview will be updated in a few months as a final release, which will then be revised and expanded again and again over the next few years as Microsoft’s new, faster update cadence continues.
While it’s interesting to look at specific features that will be in this next release, that’s ultimately a myopic perspective. It’s more important to look at how that release will evolve (and, one hopes, improve) over the next two or three years.
So, rather than focus on features, I’ve decided to zero in on the big problem areas that those new and changed features should be designed to resolve. In a somewhat chaotic and ever-changing world dominated by mobile devices and online services, this is what I’m hoping we’ll see as Windows 9 evolves.
Sharpen the line between business and consumer Windows.
Remember back in 2001, when Microsoft unified the business and consumer versions of Windows in Windows XP?
That was a good idea at the time. In that pre-tablet, pre-smartphone era, there was effectively no difference between the hardware in a business PC and a consumer PC.
Today there are profound differences between business and consumer devices, and the tension between those two markets explains much of the turmoil that began with the release of Windows 8 nearly two years ago.
You can’t ignore the business market, but you can’t expect much innovation in this legacy business either. Many businesses are buying desktop PCs to serve as single-purpose devices (in call centers or on factory floors, for example). Most conventional business laptops are running Office and a browser and little else. When was the last time you saw a brand-new desktop program or a new class of peripherals for conventional PCs? All the innovation is happening on mobile devices, with software delivered as apps and web services.
And there’s the problem: Enterprise customers, who pay dearly for Windows licenses, want as little change as possible. Consumers, for whom Windows is an increasingly smaller part of the cost of a mobile device, want the newest features and apps without the headaches of managing a PC’s complexity.
I suspect that sometime in the next few years Microsoft is going to have to let these two branches of the Windows line drift apart again. That might be the only way to keep conservative IT pros happy while not slowing down the pace of innovation on consumer-focused mobile devices that happen to run Windows.
Improve the desktop experience.
More than a year before the final release of Windows 8, then-Windows boss Steven Sinofsky noted that “for the foreseeable future, the desktop is going to continue to play a key role in many people’s lives.” And so, he promised, “we are going to improve it.”
Nearly two years later, despite the addition of some desktop-friendly features, there’s still more room to improve.
That doesn’t mean a large investment in new features or utilities for the desktop. Nor does it require ripping out the genuine improvements that debuted in Windows 8 and slapping a Windows 7 interface pack on a Windows 8.1 kernel. Instead, it means more refinements in management tools and continued usability improvements in the transitions between classic desktop elements and the new modern pieces of the user experience.
The goal? To dramatically increase the percentage of the Windows installed base that are willing to hop on the current version and stay current. To make that happen, Microsoft has to remove objections from PC users who might otherwise decide to stay with the earlier Windows 7 even as it approaches its end-of-support date in five years.
And then there are two very big challenges: the headaches of Internet Explorer and Google's insistence on playing hardball, which I discuss on the next page.