This isn't just another Windows launch.
Later this week, when Microsoft unveils the latest Windows 10 preview release at an all-day event in its Redmond headquarters, it will be following a well-worn playbook. But the expectations for this version are impossibly high, especially after the lukewarm (to put it kindly) reception for Windows 8.
One of the biggest challenges for Windows is that it has to serve two wildly different customer bases. One is the conservative IT community, which wants centralized management capabilities for fleets of PCs running business applications. The other is a consumer market that has become conditioned to rapid change and is increasingly shifting its attention in recent years to mobile devices.
The Windows 10 technical preview released last fall was aimed squarely at enterprise customers, bringing back the Start menu and allowing sandboxed Windows Store apps to run in windows instead of full screen. This week's update should be much more focused on consumer devices and services.
Here's what I'll be looking for in Redmond on Wednesday.
The OEM story
It's been a bumpy ride for Microsoft and its OEM partners over the past two years. Microsoft designed Windows 8 to bring mobile capabilities to traditional PC platforms and to enable a new range of form factors for Windows, especially tablets. It even introduced its own line of hardware, under the Surface brand, thereby directly competing with its OEM partners for the first time ever.
If previous Windows launches are any guide, you can expect Microsoft to showcase new devices from its OEM partners at this week's event. I'll be watching closely both for new hardware features that will take advantage of Windows 10 (support for biometric identification like fingerprint readers, for example) as well as for signs of tension in those OEM relationships.
There's a fundamental problem with hybrid devices like the Surface Pro and Lenovo's Yoga, which can shift quickly between two form factors, traditional PC and tablet. A user interface that works well with a keyboard and a mouse or trackpad can be awkward to control using a touchscreen.
Last fall, when Microsoft debuted the first Windows 10 Preview, the company said its solution would be a new interface design it calls Continuum, which dynamically changes interface elements as the hardware itself changes. At the time, it had only a vague conceptual video to share. This is probably the single most eagerly awaited feature in Windows 10. If it succeeds, then the entire premise of this Windows generation makes sense. If it fails...
Cortana--or at least some of her DNA--is already in the early preview builds of Windows 10, but the feature isn't enabled yet. With this preview, Microsoft should flip the switch and add its personal assistant to the full breadth of Windows 10 devices. The big question is whether Cortana's capabilities are seen as a welcome addition to the PC platform or as a gimmick.
The concept of the PC (or Mac) as digital media hub was a very big deal at the turn of the 21st Century. Today, it seems downright quaint.
But there are still enthusiasts who use PCs to manage, share, and stream digital media collections, and smaller tablets based on Windows are ideal for watching movies and listening to music. Microsoft's clearly not abandoning those customers, given its decision to add support for two formats that are popular with enthusiasts: FLAC, for lossless audio, and MKV, a universal, open-source format used mostly for swapping movies and TV shows.
As Satya Nadella finishes his first full year as CEO, he's made it clear that the Xbox platform is a strategic part of Microsoft's Windows 10 strategy. The Xbox One, in fact, is basically a PC disguised as a game console. Windows 10 should bring PC-style devices and the latest Xbox closer together, but it's not yet clear that Microsoft has figured out how to take advantage of the synergies between the living room and the PC.
The past year has been a rough one for Microsoft's mobile aspirations. The Nokia acquisition is closed, but Windows Phone is still stuck in the low single digits in terms of market share. One of the key drivers behind unifying the Windows code base on PCs and phones is to make it possible for developers to build universal apps that can run on both types of devices. Whether that will be enough to win over mobile developers is a key question.
For better or worse, though, I think this week's announcements will show that Microsoft is still committed to its mobile platforms for at least another two years.
Unfinished business: Internet Explorer and OneDrive
The rumored "Spartan" browser is a key feature of Windows 10 that should debut in this preview.
In addition, Microsoft is pinning a lot of expectations on the hooks between Windows 10 and its cloud services. Two of those services share a brand name: OneDrive is the consumer cloud storage service, and OneDrive for Business is the Office 365 equivalent for enterprise-customers. Microsoft says it's unifying those storage and sync services in 2015, with a roadmap that extends past the launch of Windows 10 later this year.
The big question for this preview release is how rough the edges will be around both those eagerly awaited features.
What you won't see this week
With this week's event focusing on consumer features, you can expect to hear far less than usual about traditional enterprise topics.
Windows 10 should include new tools for deploying and managing corporate devices. I don't expect to hear much about those enterprise features this week.
Windows 10, like any major release, will include Server editions as well. If those editions are mentioned at all this week, it will be in passing.
I also expect the Microsoft hardware teams to be mostly quiet. A Surface Pro 3 refresh with the latest Intel CPUs should be on deck soon, but this isn't a hardware event and I would expect that launch to get its own spotlight in another month or two. Likewise, Microsoft's Lumia hardware is a key piece of the Windows 10 puzzle. We might get a tease of a new device this week, but I would expect any formal product launches to wait for Mobile World Congress in early March.
And of course, two details that likely won't be discussed at all this week are the release schedule and details of packaging and pricing. This week's preview release is a major milestone, but there are still months of work ahead before Windows 10 is ready to ship.