Beyond new and free, what is the attraction of Windows 10?

With hardware refresh cycles extended longer than ever, what new features will software bring to the table? As it currently stands, Windows 10 isn't bringing much.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

In the long build up to this month's eventual launch of Windows 10, it looked as though Microsoft had decided to ride a wave of developer goodwill to get its latest operating system out to the masses. By offering its loyal application creators a single Windows target -- regardless of device -- and some of the best dev tools in the business, the software behemoth looked posed to use its traditional advantage: The ability to chose from and run more programs than you could poke a figurative stick at.

"Windows 10 represents the culmination of our platform convergence journey, with Windows now running on a single, unified Windows core," Redmond boasted back in March.

"This convergence enables one app to run on every Windows device -- on the phone in your pocket, the tablet or laptop in your bag, the PC on your desk, and the Xbox console in your living room. And that's not even mentioning all the new devices being added to the Windows family, including the HoloLens, Surface Hub, and IoT devices like the Raspberry Pi 2.

"All these Windows devices will now access one store for app acquisition, distribution, and update."

Finally, it appeared as though Microsoft could offer something different to its Apple and Google mobile operating system rivals that differentiate between form factors whenever they can. But after the writing off and laying off of most of its Nokia handset business acquisition, it's only fair to question where Microsoft thinks its mobile platform sits in its list of priorities.

It's no secret that Microsoft has struggled for years to break down the iOS/Android hegemony that dominates mobile computing, but it was a fight worth having. The main game in the future of computing is not the desktop; it's the mobile device, and while Microsoft has a player in the game, there's always a chance -- however unlikely -- of putting a few points on the board and getting ahead of the pack.

But in his missive this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella laid out a plan that frankly, Microsoft has tried before and lost.

"We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem that includes our first-party device family," Nadella said.

The idea of a Windows phone ecosystem was tried half a decade ago, with the likes of Samsung, HTC, LG, and Nokia on board. After many handset manufacturers had tried their hand at Windows Phone, Huawei revealed the obvious in August last year: That selling Windows Phone devices simply was not profitable.

Given the past failures in maintaining an ecosystem beyond the one partner it eventually bought out, it's hard to see how cutting thousands of employees from its phone business puts Microsoft in any better position than before.

What does Windows Phone offer that the other mobile platforms do not? Especially when Microsoft has taken one of its crown jewels, Office, onto rival platforms.

The fate of Microsoft's mobile platform is the lynchpin of its unified binary strategy -- it is the platform with the most potential upside, because it has a chance of gaining the company a serious amount of market share.

If developers were drawn towards Windows platforms and tooling, then one of Windows Phone's biggest shortcomings, a shortage of quality first-party apps, could be overcome. Once that flaw began to be addressed, the platform would become more attractive to consumers, and as more consumers jumped on board, developers would give it a higher priority.

It's impossible for Microsoft to even try to match features like Apple's Continuity, which impacts both desktops and mobiles, if the mobile platform becomes an ultra-niche player.

Without a proper Windows Phone strategy, Windows 10 begins to offer much the same as its predecessors.

Redmond has for a long time dominated the PC world, but lately, its fate more or less relies on the hardware refresh cycle of business and consumers alike.

There were very good performance and feature reasons to move to XP, and a similar argument existed for Windows 7, although it was not as persuasive as the shift from Windows 9X/NT to XP. Initial jarring Start menu experiences aside, Windows 8 was a decent enough release of Windows, but there was little reason to move to it unless it came with new hardware. Recent numbers from the United States Digital Analytics Program show that almost three years after Windows 8 appeared, it still has less than a third of the penetration that Windows 7 has.

Microsoft has little trouble getting its users to move off its less-than-stellar releases, but when Windows users find a good one, they stick like glue. For instance, Brisbane's Mater Health Services, which is currently in the process of moving off the now-unsupported Windows XP to Windows 7, is representative of the conservative approach that many business customers take, which, slow as it may be, is a vast improvement on the set-and-forget approach that regular Windows consumers tend to take with their PC operating system.

This is the challenge that faces Windows 10: It needs to bring something to the table that makes the laggard majority on Windows 7 want to move.

Simply rectifying the sins of Windows 8 is not going to cut it for people who never experienced the application environment formerly known as Metro, or the charms menu sliding in, or were left stranded on an underpowered Windows RT device.

Perhaps Hololens, or the streaming of Xbox games to Windows 10 computers, might be the catalyst for a new Windows upgrade cycle, but that scenario is doubtful to my eye.

More likely to bring success would be the legion of Microsoft software houses targeting the universal Windows 10 platform to create a compelling catalogue of apps that morphed between desktop, tablet, and phone form factors.

But with the gutting of its phone offering, the Windows 10 universe is essentially the same universe that exists for Windows 7 and Windows 8. If Microsoft will not back its own mobile platform like it has before, even to achieve merger results, then developers can hardly be expected to put in the extra effort to target their programs at it.

With the Windows 10 universe looking similar to the previous universe inhabited by Windows, there is little reason for users or app makers to change existing habits, and even less reason to believe that habits will change -- the only exception to this would appear to be an organisation that is Windows from desktop to phone, and wants to easily deploy its in-house application.

Hence, we end up in a situation where the main drawcards to Windows 10 will be its free starting price, and the security benefits that come from using a recent operating system. Features such as Windows Hello are not the type that shift millions of units.

It is easy to envisage Windows 10 increasing its market share at the same pace that Windows 8 does now once the free period expires, unless a new killer use case is created.

Windows 10 needs a reason for Ma and Pa Average to think about moving from Windows 7, and, as it currently stands, Microsoft is cursed by the very reason that Windows rose to the top of the OS pile in the first place: Windows 7 is still good enough.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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