Windows 11: Is Microsoft having its Spinal Tap moment?

Microsoft has cranked the hype machine up to 11 for its next big Windows feature update. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

I can't get that scene from the classic comedy This Is Spinal Tap out of my head. You know, the one where dimwitted rocker Nigel Tufnel explains why the volume knobs on his amp all go to 11. "Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten."

In its long history, Microsoft has never been afraid to go full Nigel Tufnel.  

Throughout the first three decades of Windows, Microsoft cranked up its Hype Machine™ every two or three years to get the buying public excited about a new Windows version. Sometimes that hype served as a power washer to wipe away the stains of a previous, unloved version, like Windows 7 successfully cleaning up the mess left by Windows Vista. Sometimes it marked a genuine sea change, like the merging of the consumer and business lines in Windows XP. And sometimes it was just a pure cash grab.

But Windows 10 was supposed to mark the end of that hype cycle. Instead of "big bang" releases every few years, Windows 10 was going to usher in the Windows As A Service era, with new features arriving when they were ready, in easy-to-manage semi-annual feature updates that were free of cost and, more importantly, free of hype.

It was fun while it lasted.

To celebrate the end of the pandemic, or something, Microsoft has dragged the Hype Machine™ out of storage, where it was sitting next to a tiny scale model of Stonehenge, blown off the accumulated dust, replaced a few vacuum tubes, and fired that sucker up. They've turned it all the way to 11, in fact.

When I saw the first signs of the new hype campaign, driven by "leaks" of visual changes code-named Sun Valley, I assumed there must be more under the surface. Surely this new version of Windows will be an iceberg, with most of the interesting stuff below the water line. Those underwhelming interface changes are just something to make the demos flashy, right?

Or maybe not.

It appears, based on a million leaks, that Microsoft is going to increment the main Windows version number from 10 to 11 because ... honestly, I have no idea why. Because they can? Because the marketing people need something to do? Because someone calculated that whatever business unit Windows is now in needs an extra three-tenths of a percent of revenue in FY 22?

Choose your adventure.

I suppose it is possible that the new Windows 11 will pleasantly surprise and that the UX tweaks will be subtly brilliant and that all previous Windows 10 annoyances will magically vanish.

More likely, though, it will be nothing more than a way to juice up the OEMs for the crucial holiday buying season. Same as it's ever been.

Which is a shame, really. What Windows needs right now is not a UX refresh. (Although, sure, I'll take it. Put that UX stuff in a feature update. Surprise me.)

No, what Windows needs is a clear path to the same Promised Land that Apple is trying to reach, where people can't mess up their experience by installing a seemingly safe app that turned out to be malware and should not have been fully trusted. That was one of the original goals of the now-canceled Windows 10X, if you'll recall.

Personally, I would have saved the Windows 11 badge for the version that fully implements container-based security, so you can run a legacy app and know that it's safely confined to its secure sandbox. You know that one's coming, but it's taking longer than it should.

Meanwhile, we're going to be subjected to a Windows 11 hype campaign from Microsoft and its OEM partners this fall. It might be almost tolerable, because after all Windows 10 has managed to be a pretty decent desktop OS, and the UX changes might be just enough to sand off its rough edges. Maybe this holiday season will finally be the one where people realize that Windows is now a manageable nuisance.

But still, this has all the vibe of "OK, we were planning to have a big revenue bump from Windows 10X this year but that didn't work out, so where is that cash going to come from?"

The good news is that this is likely to be just another Windows feature update, with the only difference being that it kicks the whole-number version up by one. And if this is just another feature update that somehow got dragged onstage for an unexpected and maybe unwelcome turn in the spotlight, perhaps the succession of semi-annual feature updates that will arrive over the next few years will help it become more polished.

Just in time to take over when Windows 10 hits its expiration date on October 14, 2025.