With Windows 11, Microsoft can tackle its lengthy to-do list

From an improved touch experience to capitalizing on its lack of an ad-driven business model, Windows 11 provides.

Windows 10, the version so enticing that Microsoft had to jump past a "9" version to name it, is about to turn six. That's a long time compared to the annual major release cycle governing macOS, Windows' lifelong rival. But not a long time for a version that was touted as being the last ever for the venerable operating system as it transitioned to more of a service model. Nonetheless, time marches on. After all, with the release of macOS 11 (Big Sur), Apple finally moved past Version 10 after 15 versions that exhausted the inspirational value of the Panthera genus.

Windows 10 came as a relief to PC users frustrated by the split personality of Windows 8 that, on the one hand, abandoned longtime conventions in pursuit of an experience that could straddle tablet PCs and phones and, on the other hand, all but froze the features of the desktop interface that people actually used. While Windows 10 struck a middle ground that all but killed the full-screen "Metro" experience, users have still had to deal with an interface that has tried to move forward some of the touch-friendlier elements of Windows 8 but which has left behind large swaths of the interface. Indeed, just looking at what Microsoft and competitors have sought to tackle since the launch of Windows 10 provides a long list of priorities for Windows 11 to tackle in the coming years.

Touch

Windows 8 was Microsoft's half-court press to take on the iPad, which seem positioned to decimate the notebook after its fast growth. Windows PCs more than survived, but the two main 2-in-1 form factors that surfaced in the iPad's wake still account for a small percentage of sales, with touch accounting for an even smaller percentage of usage. Surely, PC vendors could improve on that if Windows offered a better touch experience with more than superficial interface changes when laptops move into "tablet mode". Microsoft has shown it has the user interface tools to achieve this, but the operating system could do more to facilitate it.

Speed and security

Along with the backtracked touch focus of Windows 8, Microsoft also had to scale back its take on Windows S, which offered enhanced speed and security at the cost of compatibility with several important third-party apps. However, the two most prominent of these -- iTunes and Chrome -- have become far less important. Apple and Microsoft have deprecated the first has built a highly competitive Chrome alternative with Edge. Windows 11 has an opportunity to create a new start for what has since been a largely ignored "S-Mode."

ARM support

The ARM-based iPad may not have decimated Windows laptops, but the ARM-based Mac has certainly made Microsoft and its partners take notice of the kinds of improvements Apple has been able to make. Of course, on this one, Microsoft was out in front in partnering with Qualcomm. Still, odd branding, early compatibility woes, high prices, and battery life that fell short of promised revolutions in longevity have resulted in highly limited impact. Meanwhile, Apple has gone all-in on its M1 architecture, which will not only soon power all Macs, but has already expanded into iPads.

Windows 10X (both versions)

Windows 11's announcement comes two years after Microsoft made a rare pre-announcement of a new version of Windows, 10X that was aimed at a new class of dual-screened notebooks pioneered by the Surface Neo. Neither the new device nor the new operating system was released in the economic malaise caused by the pandemic. While Panos Panay has said that the Neo is still in the pipeline, Windows 10X has also come to represent Microsoft's latest salvo to counter the lightweight, cloud-leaning, increasingly versatile and easily administered Chrome OS that has allowed Google-powered laptops to dominate entry-level pricing options and steal share from Windows, particularly in the education market.

Collaboration

It was no surprise to see that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff recently say that his company will redesign its offerings to be Slack-first, capitalizing on his company's marquee acquisition last year. Indeed, Microsoft's client software work has been so Teams-focused in the past few years that it has seemed as if Windows had taken a backseat to the collaboration client. But, of course, Windows itself can include many hooks for Teams-centered collaboration, another opportunity for Windows 11.

AI

Another theme that has been a mainstay of Microsoft's developer events has been the importance of ethical adoption of developer events. Microsoft has been particularly active in focusing AI as a tool to help developers. However, from an end-user implementation perspective, it has been behind Google's curve -- in part because, as for Apple, its desktop computing platform hasn't lent itself as well to those kinds of improvements. That said, users would also welcome more traditional productivity-focused improvements, including an overhaul of Windows' lagging search capabilities.

Privacy

The line may be starting to blur, but Big Tech companies can be loosely divided into two groups, companies that extensively mine user data for personalized advertising versus those like Apple that seek to differentiate with premium products that offer privacy-protecting defaults. Microsoft is, of course, on the latter side and has leveraged this to some effect on Edge. But, as Apple has shown, there's more the company can do to capitalize on its business model.