Microsoft's latest operating system update Windows 11 is now available as a free download. Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella says Windows 11 ushers in a "new generation of Windows" that will help people realize their dreams, while Panos Panay, chief product officer for Windows and devices, calls it a "new era for the PC".
Windows 11 could be the biggest launch since Windows 7, but its unveiling also reflects a new reality: Windows is just one product for Microsoft among many, with the operating system living alongside Microsoft Office, Teams, and its Azure cloud platform.
Whatever the reality, Microsoft has to celebrate the arrival of the next version of Windows, some 38 years after the software giant's co-founder Bill Gates unveiled Windows 1.0.
SEE: Microsoft's Windows 11: How to get it now (or later)
Microsoft has been testing new features and the UI redesign with Windows Insiders for the past year. Windows 11 is a free upgrade for users on Windows 10 version 2004 and newer, but people will need relatively new hardware to get the upgrade. They can use Microsoft's updated PC Health Check app to check if their PCs meet Microsoft's hardware requirements, or buy one of Microsoft's new Surface devices, such as the Surface Pro 8 2-in-1, the Arm-based Surface Pro X, or cheaper Surface Go 3.
Nadella is, unsurprisingly, upbeat. "Windows 11 marks the start of a new generation of Windows, making it easier for anyone to dream big and turn their ideas into reality. We can't wait to see what you create," he wrote to mark Windows 11's arrival.
When Windows 10 was launched, bringing in rolling updates for software and services, Microsoft suggested that there would never be a need for a Windows 11. That idea has clearly been abandoned. And as well as the significance of breaking with the idea of 'Windows 10 forever', the Windows 11 launch also comes after Microsoft's May decision to drop Windows 10X, Microsoft's would-be answer to popular and cheap Google Chrome OS machines.
PCs are, of course, no longer the primary computing device used by most people – smartphone and tablets are the choice of many, but PCs have proved surprisingly resilient and popular. And while Windows has taken a back seat to the Azure cloud and Office 365/Microsoft 365 for the past few years, it's not totally overlooked: Windows was boosted in August via the promotion of Panos Panay to the senior leadership team.
As ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley noted at the time, the Windows business has not had a representative in the senior leadership team since former Windows chief Terry Myerson departed in 2018.
In a blogpost, Panay insisted that Windows 11 is an "exciting milestone in the history of Windows", enthusiastically backing Nadella's claim that it will enhance up to a billion Windows users' creativity.
"Windows is a driving force for innovation. It's an enduring platform for each one of us to create," he wrote.
ASUS, HP and Lenovo also have new hardware with Windows 11, while Acer, Dell and Samsung will release PCs with Windows 11 pre-installed soon.
"No other ecosystem has the breadth and scale that the Windows ecosystem does to meet the needs of people whether they're creators, developers, students and educators, business and gamers at every price point and in every form factor," says Panay.
Panay notes that Start is a quick route to the cloud and Microsoft 365, which is sold separately and lets people continue working across Windows 11 from an Android phone or an iPhone. Widgets, meanwhile, offer a personalized feed that behaves like a "sheet of glass".
"Whether it's glancing at your day through Outlook calendar and To-Do list integrations, catching up on the latest headlines or tomorrow's weather forecast, or viewing your favorite OneDrive photo memories, Widgets bring everything you love to your fingertips," says Panay.
SEE: Windows 11 upgrade: Five questions to ask first
The Chat from Microsoft Teams button is another notable change, replacing the old Meet Now button from Skype, which recently got a refresh but won't ship as a button in Windows 11. The Teams Chat button offers a lightweight version of Teams.
There's also the updated version of the Microsoft Store on Windows. However, Android apps and games from the Amazon Appstore are not available yet on Windows 11. Via a deal with Amazon and Intel, these apps will be available in a preview for Windows Insiders soon, according to Microsoft.
Windows 11 introduces Snap Layouts, Groups and Desktops to clean up desktop spaces, particularly for larger screens. There's also a voice-typing option.
There are also benefits for developers who want to distribute products through Windows 11 via WebView2 and the Windows App software developer kit (SDK9 and WiunUI 3). Microsoft posted details for developers in a blogpost.
Windows 11 gaming improvements include better rendering for HDR displays, Xbox-inspired DirectStorage for faster load times on hardware with NVMe solid-state drives, and DirectX 12 GPUs. Windows 11 also includes the Xbox app.
Microsoft has been scrambling to fix bugs with headline features such as the Start menu, Taskbar and widgets ahead of the Windows 11 mainstream release.