In the "Windows as a Service" era, Microsoft has been refining not just the user experience but also some of the fundamental architectural elements of its flagship operating system.
The process really started four years ago, with the release of Windows 8, which was followed in relatively rapid succession by a major update and Windows 8.1.
But the momentum has accelerated with Windows 10, which had two significant upgrades (now officially called "feature updates") in its first year.
Development is now under way on the fourth update, code-named Redstone 2, which is due in spring of 2017. As usual, the Fast Ring of the Windows Insider Program is first to see what's new.
Build 14942, a Redstone 2 preview released to Insiders last week, comes with a laundry list of changes, which my colleague Mary Jo Foley summarized last week. Yes, most of what's new in this build consists of "minor feature tweaks." But look a little deeper and you can get a glimpse of what those changes portend for the future of Windows.
The obvious starting point is, of course...
The new old Start menu
If you're feeling whiplash over what Microsoft likes to call the "Start experience," that's understandable. The changes since the release of Windows 8 have been devolutionary, a series of lurches slowly restoring much of the Windows 7-style Start menu.
Build 14942 adds a new option under Settings > Personalization > Start. Flip the Hide App List In Start Menu setting and its appearance changes noticeably.
Here's what Start looks like in the current (Anniversary Update) public release.
And here's what it looks like with that column of apps hidden.
Those small icons in the upper left corner switch from the tiles-only view to this All Apps list, which should look familiar if you've ever used Windows 7.
Another factoid worth noting: This is a rare instance of the phrase "Start menu" appearing in the Windows interface. Elsewhere, this feature is consistently described as simply "Start."
The retouched Photos app
The Photos app in this build debuts a new set of navigation links that run along the top of the app, dropping the hamburger menu and the left-hand navigation pane. That design also moves the Settings option to the upper right, beneath the user photo, as it is in the Store app and in the Photos experience in OneDrive on the web.
By itself, this isn't that big a change, but it does break the hammerlock that the hamburger menu design had on the built-in Windows 10 apps, giving some glimmer of hope. The new app also includes some nice visual enhancements, including a subtle animation when you mouse over an individual picture.
Those are indeed fairly minor tweaks, with most of the organization and editing functions unchanged. But the release of these changes in this build emphasizes a more global point: The apps included with Windows, including Mail and Calendar, Photos, and Groove Music, are now mostly decoupled from the operating system itself.
In Windows 7 and earlier, these bundled apps were updated rarely, if at all. But since the launch of Windows 10 those apps have been evolving at impressive speed. And except for the occasional addition of new platform features, those updates have no need to wait for the rest of Windows.
Registry Editor's new address bar
Registry Editor, aka Regedit, is the quintessential Windows power tool. I don't think I can remember a visible change to its functionality in the past 15 years or so.
Which makes the addition of a File Explorer-style address bar noteworthy. You can now type or paste a key, and you can easily copy a registry location from the address bar.
Previously, the only way to track your navigation through the registry hierarchy was by looking at a status bar. As with other changes in this build, the new address bar isn't mandatory: If you prefer the old style, there's a setting on the View menu that lets you toggle it off.
Service Host processes
This one is esoteric and geeky but is perhaps the most fundamental change in this build.
Historically, Windows and many third-party apps use services to handle tasks independently of the currently signed-in user account. Until this build, many of those services were grouped into a collection of Service Host processes (Svchost.exe) as a way of conserving memory. That might have made sense in the days when a Windows PC had limited RAM, but on systems with 16 or 32 GB it's a false economy.
So in this build, on PCs with more than 3.5 GB of RAM, services are no longer grouped under shared Svchost entries. Instead, each gets its own process. The results can look a little startling in Task Manager.
On a test PC running the Anniversary Update (Windows 10 version 1607), I counted more than 90 processes, running in a total of 15 Svchost.exe instances.
On a different PC running build 14942, I have more than 100 services, from Windows and from third-party software, running in a total of more than 70 Svchost.exe instances. A few are still grouped, but most run independently, which means a problem in one service can't take down other services.
The disappearing Control Panel
The Quick Link menu isn't new. This shortcut menu, which appears when you right-click Start or press Windows key+X, has been around since Windows 8. In build 14942, that menu contains one small but meaningful change.
In all previous Windows 10 releases, Control Panel was on the menu, between Task Manager and File Explorer. Now, that slot on the menu is occupied by a link to the new Settings app.
Control Panel will probably never disappear completely, but the tide has clearly shifted in favor of the newer Settings app, with its more modern design and iconography. Settings got a major visual upgrade in the Anniversary Update, and this change suggests much more to come.
One place to look for changes in an upcoming build is in Settings > System > About. In build 14942, you'll find four unlabeled and apparently non-functional on-off switches at the bottom of that page. What will ultimately appear alongside those placeholders is still a mystery.