Windows 10: Nearing the Finish Line (Part 1)
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On October 1, Microsoft released a technical preview of Windows 10 to the IT world. Many of us have been playing with it for a few months now and getting to know some of the nuances of Microsoft’s next (and according to some reports, last) major operating system release.
As with all initial beta releases, the tech preview was unfinished and a little buggy. After all, the whole point of a preview is to solicit feedback so as to make the finished product better. On January 21, Microsoft unveiled the more polished consumer preview and demonstrated some of its key features. After a not-very-enthusiastic reception for Windows 8 from many corners, in both the consumer and business space, Microsoft has a lot riding on Win10.
Even the name reflects the importance that Microsoft places on this version of Windows.
What’s in a name?
The official party line is that the new OS is so great that “it’s a ten,” referencing the popular rating system that (some) single folks apply to their dates or potential dates and made famous way back in 1979 by the movie “10” starring Bo Derek. There has, however, been much speculation in the tech press about the “real reasons.”
One such theory is that it was done simply to avoid software problems with third party legacy programs that in their coding use the line if(version.StartsWith(“Windows 9”)) to identify the operating system as Windows 95 or Windows 98. That would be a logical and pragmatic – if somewhat boring – explanation.
Others have opined that it’s playing copycat with Apple, which calls its desktop operating system OS X regardless of new versions. That fits in with the “last major release” theory, whereby Windows would remain “Windows 10” forever (or at least for the foreseeable future) regardless of incremental updates that add new features.
But many believe the jump to 10 was a deliberate ploy to add distance between the new OS and Windows 8, which – although under the hood it’s an excellent operating system and it works well on touch screen devices – has caused confusion and frustration for so many users.
Whatever the reason(s), Win10 it is, and it does have a nice ring to it.
One Windows to rule them all
Microsoft has made no secret of the fact that its ultimate goal, for quite some time, has been to provide a single Windows interface and experience across all devices of all sizes, from the phone to the big screen. With Windows 10, they’re moving forward in that effort. At the unveiling event, they announced that Windows Store apps will run on phones, tablets, PCs and even the Xbox One.
Speaking of apps, this doesn’t mean power users like me who spend most of their time at a high-powered desktop computer hooked up to six monitors are going to be relegated to using Store apps, though. Microsoft’s flagship Office productivity suite will now have two different versions.
Office for Windows 10 is the one that will work seamlessly across all the different devices and it will include touch-centric versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook. These apps are reportedly going to come already installed on Windows mobile devices and you’ll be able to download them free to your PC.
If that PC doesn’t have a touch screen, and/or if you need more of the advanced features in Office (that some statistics have indicated are only used by a small but important percentage of users), there will also be a new full-fledged version of Office called Office 2016 (although it’s expected to come out late this year). The full Office package will include additional applications (Access, Lync, Publisher) and will be optimized for use with a keyboard and mouse.
Many of us, of course, will use both iterations of Office – the Win10 app when we’re working on a tablet or phone and the Office 2016 programs for more serious and involved work on our desktops and laptops.
In addition to the compatibility across devices of Windows apps, the interface experience is also more consistent from phone to larger device. This can make for a very smooth flow and possibly (obviously this is Microsoft’s hope) lure more users to Windows phone in order to avoid the confusion of switching between operating systems. Now if only they would bring their best flagship phones to wireless carriers other than AT&T, Windows Phone might just finally start to get some traction (but that’s another discussion for another article).
Across the Continuum
With Windows 8, Microsoft came up against one of the biggest challenges of designing one operating that works on both traditional (non-touch enabled) desktops/laptops and new touch-centric devices that are used in very non-traditional locations and positions (e.g., held in the hands while standing or walking, perched on the tray of a treadmill or stationary bike, etc.).
The problem is that the same interface that works great in those latter situations isn’t the most comfortable and efficient to use when sitting at a keyboard. Thus we had the tile-based Start screen and simple, touch-friendly apps and we also had the customary Windows desktop (well, almost). Each worked well for its purpose, but many customers were frustrated by the inability of the operating system to automatically adapt to the type of device they were using, and found the transition between the two interfaces to be “jarring.”
Microsoft is striving to fix that problem in Windows 10, with technology called Continuum that will provide the correct interface on the Surface Pro 3 or Lenovo’s Yoga convertibles, depending on whether or not you have the keyboard attached. With the keyboard attached, apps are windowed and it defaults to the desktop mode. Detach the keyboard, and it automatically expands apps to full screen and gives you the Modern UI experience. And of course if you don’t want to work in the mode that’s “appropriate” for the state of your keyboard, you can override this by selecting the mode you want from a pop-up box. It will be interesting to see just how well this works.
Right from the Start
The most obvious and for most users the most welcome change in Windows 10 isn’t something new, it’s something old: the Start menu. However, this isn’t your grandfather’s Start menu. It’s a new version that attempts to combine the best of both worlds, giving you the traditional Start menu interface that you know and love along with the new tile-based “Modern UI” look.
The number one complaint when Windows 8 hit the streets was the lack of the familiar Start button and Start menu on the desktop taskbar. It was like getting into a new car and discovering that it had no steering wheel. I heard one person liken the experience to the three seashells in the movie Demolition Man: “I don’t know what to do with this.” (If you don’t get that reference, watch the movie; it’s as hilarious now as it was when it came out in the 1990s). The point is that the Start menu had been like the north star in Windows for almost two decades; it was the compass point from which we could always find our way.
Microsoft heard the complaints and tried to throw users a bone in Windows 8.1, adding back the Start button – but not the Start menu that users expect when they click it. Instead, it threw you back to the hated (by many) full Start screen, leading to the common description of a “jarring” experience.
Meanwhile, those who were technically savvy (or had techie friends and relatives to guide them) downloaded and installed third party add-ons such as Stardock’s five dollar Start 8 or Ivo Beltchev’s free Classic Shell, tweaked the settings to always open to the desktop, changed our file associations to open all programs with desktop applications instead of Store apps, and happily went on our ways, computing as we always had and enjoying the improved multiple monitor support, enhanced task manager, faster startup, better security and other ways in which Windows 8/8.1 was better than its predecessors.
But Microsoft apparently came to the (correct) conclusion that, except for a handful of Modern UI fans, neither the techies nor the typical consumers were happy with their half-baked Start button concession, so in Windows 10 they bowed to public demand and gave us back what we wanted – and then some.
As you can see the Start Menu’s left side looks a bit like the traditional one (and of course can be configured to include items you want) but on the right is a “mini Start screen” with live tiles. The nice thing is that you don’t have to leave the Windows desktop to access them, which is what I (and a number of others I’ve talked to about it) have wanted all along.
But Windows 10 does much more than just “fix” Windows 8’s mistakes. It also adds some exciting new features of its own, which we’ll get into in the next installment.
In Part 1 of this series, we took a look at how Microsoft has made changes to Windows 10 that seek in some ways to backtrack and “undo” some of the more dramatic changes in Windows 8 that users did not embrace, and make the new hybrid desktop plus touch experience smoother.
In Part 2, we’ll start to look at Windows 10’s new features, such as the Cortana personal digital assistant and the new Spartan web browser.
If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to: