Microsoft's 'Modern OS' vision: A foreshadowing of 'Lite' or more of the same?

Is Microsoft's vision for 'a modern OS' something brand-new? Or is it just the next phase of the Microsoft 'Modern Desktop'? 'Modern' is in the eye of the beholder.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: Microsoft

It's another year and another Computex, which means it's time for PC makers to show off more of their coming PCs. And it's also time for Microsoft to provide some aspirational words about Windows.

This year, Microsoft execs didn't flog the "W" word -- which isn't unusual, given Microsoft these days is working to distance itself from its Windows-centric past. Over the past couple of years, Microsoft officials have prefered to talk about Microsoft 365, its bundle of Windows, Office 365 and Enterprise Mobility + Security, rather than plain-old Windows. The lofty marketing term Microsoft execs and partners sometimes use for Microsoft 365 is "the Modern Desktop."

At Computex 2019, Microsoft execs talked about "a modern operating system," rather than "the Modern Desktop." Their pitch for this sounds amazing: An OS that handles updates seamlessly in the background; that can switch between WiFi and LTE 5G on the fly; that is ready at an instant's notice for users; and that's secure by default; and that maintains state separately from the OS itself.

This is not the Windows 10 of today, as we users can attest. Is this modern OS just Windows 10, along with the Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD), the Windows Sandbox and other new capabilities? Is it the operating system piece of Modern Desktop v. 2 or v.3? Or, as some are speculating, is this Microsoft's not-so-thinly veiled attempt at setting the stage for "Windows Lite," which tipsters have indicated is more like Chrome OS than it is like the Windows of today?

I'm not so sure this "modern operating system" pitch is actually about Windows Lite. I do believe Microsoft is continuing to work on Lite -- a product which, according to sources, will be built on top of Windows Core OS (WCOS) and feature a composable shell codenamed "Santorini." Sources have said Lite, which may not be called Windows at all, is likely to be ready some time in 2020. Microsoft may talk about it this year at some point.

Update: After reading and talking with some of my Microsoft-watching colleagues, I do think that this modern OS thing is likely a very vague and aspirational reference to what Microsoft is hoping to do with WCOS and Windows Lite. 

Back to my original post: But whether this modern OS is or isn't Lite, I think we need to remember that Lite isn't the be-all/end-all future for Microsoft. 

Microsoft is continuing to develop features for Windows 10 and has a customer base of millions, especially in business, who are planning to use a fully featured version of Windows on PCs, laptops, 2-in-1s and tablets for the foreseeable future. Microsoft is continuing to push Microsoft 365, which includes Windows 10, as the platform to which Windows 7 users should be migrating. And the Microsoft Managed Desktop service, via which Microsoft itself handles deploying and maintaining an organization's PCs, is built around Windows 10.

There will be a place for Lite and devices running Lite, especially in education and the firstline worker spaces. And maybe one day Microsoft will be able to make the case that most PC users will be able to count on Lite, plus virtualized applications (including Win32 ones) running on Lite as their daily driver. But that day isn't today and it's not likely to be anytime soon. 

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