What's next for Windows 10: 2021 and beyond

As Microsoft gets ready to roll out another feature update for Windows 10, it's clear that big changes are in store for its flagship operating system. Here are my predictions for what's coming soon.

Microsoft released its newest feature update to Windows 10 today, right on schedule. The October 2020 Update, more formally known as version 20H2. will be delivered to the public on a measured, ultra-cautious schedule, as my colleague Mary Jo Foley notes. At least initially, in fact, the only people who will be offered the update are those who deliberately go looking for it -- a group Microsoft calls "seekers."

If you're dreading yet another time-consuming, potentially destabilizing major update, you can relax. As I noted a few weeks ago, this is an extremely light update, with only a handful of new features. (For details, see "What's new in Windows 10 version 20H2.")

For those upgrading from the May 2020 Update, version 2004, I can confirm that the upgrade is lightning fast. On several Windows 10 test devices in my office, the upgrade took under three minutes.

For those installing the update on systems running 2019 releases of Windows 10, the update will take longer, but it's unlikely to be problematic. That's because version 20H2 is really just a slightly tweaked version of version 2004, which has been in wide-scale public release for six months. All of the "known issues" for that release are now marked as resolved except for some driver-related issues with Connexant devices, which are under a compatibility hold and won't be offered in either feature update until the issue is fixed.

This release represents an inflection point for Windows 10, which now enters the second half of its first decade. Those initial five years were marked, at least initially, by a frenetic development pace that was arguably customer-hostile.

So what does Windows 10 have in store for the next five years? Here are my predictions, based not on inside information but on watching the company closely.

That slower pace for Windows 10 development will continue

I think Microsoft has finally learned that trying to deliver two feature-packed updates every year is an unsustainable pace. In 2019 and 2020, we've seen that pace of development slow dramatically, with full updates in the first half of the year and much smaller updates in H2, giving customers a chance to catch their collective breath.

Earlier this year, Mary Jo Foley reported that Windows 10X will likely debut in the first half of 2021. This is the long-awaited modular variant of Windows (code named "Lite" or "Santorini.") One overlooked detail in that story caught my eye, though: "Microsoft may end up releasing just one feature update per year for Windows 10 starting in 2021."

Windows 10X in the first half of the year, Windows 10 in the second? That makes perfect sense in the new Microsoft. I would not be surprised to see those Windows 10 versions going to the Windows 10 Release Preview channel early in the year, offering something close to the current release calendar for seekers.

The death of the PC will be postponed for another few years

Credit the COVID-19 pandemic and the rush to have us all work from home for this development. As IT departments have come to terms with the idea that remote work just might be here to stay, they've also discovered that reliable, modern hardware makes a difference. That might explain why Gartner and IDC both reported increases in PC shipments in the two full quarters since the start of the pandemic began.

This unexpected resurgence comes at a favorable time with Microsoft, which has done a good job of sorting out early issues with Windows 10. It also helps that the PC business is consolidating around a handful of manufacturers who are building high-quality work machines, especially 2-in-1s.

It's still too early to gauge the impact of Arm processors on the PC marketplace, although you can bet that Microsoft and its OEM partners will be watching Apple's first generation of Arm-based Macs with keen interest.

Progressive Web Apps will give Microsoft a Chromebook alternative

When Windows 10 debuted in 2015, Microsoft was focused on its Universal Windows Platform. That didn't exactly work out, especially with the demise of Windows 10 Mobile devices. As it turned out, though, there's another app option that could be even bigger.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are a way to turn websites into apps that can take advantage of things like local storage and notifications. That's a huge opportunity for Microsoft, which has invested heavily in its Office 365 apps on the Web. Just this month, in fact, Microsoft was reportedly installing Office PWAs automatically on Windows 10 devices, as an unintended side effect of the new Edge browser.

Imagine those Office apps running on a Windows 10 PC in S Mode or even on a device running Windows 10X. The result is Microsoft's answer to the Chromebook: lightweight and easy (well, easier) to manage. In combination with a Microsoft 365 subscription, it might offer a creditable alternative, especially for schools.

For enterprise, Windows Virtual Desktop is on deck

For Windows 10 20H2, Microsoft is continuing to pitch Windows Virtual Desktop, which uses Azure-based virtualization to give end users a secure Windows desktop from any device.

That technology has been under development for years, but it's finally beginning to achieve critical mass. It's too management-intensive for consumers or small businesses, but it solves a host of problems for enterprise customers.

That leaves Edgebooks for consumers, high-end PCs (perhaps Arm-based) for small and medium business, and a full range of options for enterprise deployments.