Windows 10: Nearing the Finish Line (Part 2)

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

Introduction

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.

Ask me anything

Just as the Start menu isn’t a completely new idea but brings a radical change both for Windows 8/8.1 users and for those who currently work with the old Start menu in XP, Vista and Windows 7, Cortana is an implementation of something that’s been around for a while – speech recognition – but it combines that technology with digital “intelligence” to take it to a whole new level.

In Figure 1, this time notice the circle and “Ask me anything” notation on the task bar next to the reinstated Start button. That’s Cortana.

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Figure 1

Cortana is familiar to those (relatively few) people who use Windows 8 phones; “she” is Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Google Now, a personal digital assistant that makes it faster and easier to access information, launch programs, perform common tasks and be reminded of appointments and events. It was first introduced by Microsoft in 2014 at the BUILD conference.

Bringing Cortana to the desktop could radically change the way people interact with their PCs, creating a Star Trek-like environment in which you can easily use voice commands and queries in a way that hasn’t been possible before. Users will be able to send email, search both the web and your local hard drive, get answers to questions, play music, check on flight status and much more, without fumbling with a keyboard.

In the demonstration of Cortana during Microsoft’s Windows 10 unveiling event, Cortana was able to respond to such commands as “show photos from December” and display the results impressively quickly.

I type 90+ words per minute so I might not fully appreciate Cortana as much as those who hunt and peck, but I can envision many scenarios where the ability to simply ask a question of my computer and get an answer could come in very handy. In the business environment, it will be interesting to see how well Cortana works with currently popular “open office” layouts, when there are multiple users talking to PCs located near one another.

A more Spartan browsing experience

Microsoft has built its web browsing experience on Internet Explorer for almost twenty years and has hung onto that name from 1995 to the present day, despite the confusion with Windows Explorer and despite the bad reputation that IE got back in its early days. IE 6 and older versions were regarded as less secure and less performant than other third party browsers, and even though Microsoft has made great strides in improving both security and performance in recent versions, the tainted image still lingers and many users swear by Chrome or Firefox and vow they would never use IE.

In Windows 10, Microsoft is introducing a new web browser that’s code named Spartan (the name may change in the final release), built on a new rendering engine. The company is reportedly not dumping IE, but Spartan will be a separate application that is integrated with Cortana and includes some new social sharing features. I’ve heard some complaints that it will be confusing to users to have two browsers, but in practice almost everyone I know has more than one web browser installed already, and I and many other people use both IE and another browser (I use IE and Chrome), if only because some pages render better in one than in the other.

One of the most interesting things about Spartan, which illustrates that was designed from the ground up for tablets and touch screens rather than supporting them as an afterthought, is the new inking support. This allows you to make annotations on web pages and then sync them to OneDrive and share them with others. This makes great use of the stylus on the Surface and some other Windows-based tablets – although I still have a big complaint regarding Microsoft’s failure to build the stylus into the device, like the Samsung Notes, so it won’t get lost (and no, that little stick-on tab holder that falls off within the first week is not the answer).

Stylus aside, Spartan was designed to work on all types of Windows devices and play nicely both with the keyboard and mouse and with touch and voice. Microsoft says Spartan will be compatible with web sites that were designed with IE, because it’s going to load the IE 11 engine when you visit one of these legacy enterprise web sites. However, even with the IE 11 engine, Spartan may not support all sites – such as those that use custom ActiveX controls. That’s why Windows 10 will have IE built in along with Spartan.

The Windows 10 preview that was released in January doesn’t yet include the Spartan browser. It does include “the latest Internet Explorer,” which according to Microsoft has many of the updates that will be used by Spartan (shown below in Figure 2).

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Figure 2

Of interest to developers, the version of IE in the Windows 10 preview includes support for a number of new features, including HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS), HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP (DASH), video tracks information and switching, and support accessing the Document Object Model (DOM) tree via the XPath syntax. A number of updated dev tools are also included.

Web developers have, for a long time, criticized Microsoft for failing to completely comply with web standards. Spartan is designed around HTML5 standards, which should please those critics. What users might or might not like is Spartan’s reported “minimalist” design. In any event, at the time of this writing there are many questions remaining about Spartan, but it looks as if we’ll need to wait until the next release of Windows 10 to get answers.

Free for all

The news coming out of the unveiling event for the latest Windows 10 preview that I got the most positive feedback on from readers isn’t a feature at all – it’s a licensing issue. As you can imagine, Microsoft’s decision to provide Windows 10 as a free upgrade to all users who are running Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 is a very popular one, especially for small and midsized businesses that are on tight budgets. Be aware, though, that the offer isn’t open-ended; it will be in effect for one year after Windows 10’s release.

This transition to free upgrade is no doubt in part a strategy to compete with Apple’s Mac OS X operating system, which has offered free upgrades for a while. It’s also in keeping with Microsoft’s shift of focus from products to services. Under this new “operating system as a service” philosophy, new features will be rolled out periodically and you won’t need to buy a new version of the operating system for the lifetime of the device. Thus the description of Windows 10 as Microsoft’s “last OS” that was mentioned in Part 1 of this series.

But what if you don’t want all of these new features – at least, not until you’ve had time to test them and determine that the feature upgrades won’t cause problems with the devices on your business network? Don’t worry; it appears companies will be able to roll out the new features if and when they want, as there will be different distribution channels for business vs. consumers.

Virtually all the desktops you need

Virtual desktops – the concept has been around for a long time and Linux users have been using it for many years. It’s not to be confused with VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure). Here we aren’t talking about delivering desktops from a server; instead the idea is that you can create separate desktops on your local computer for different projects, personal vs. work applications, and so forth.

Many Windows power users have downloaded and installed Mark Russinovich’s Sysinternals utility called simply “Desktops” and now Desktops 2.0, published in 2012, to achieve the same functionality. There are also other third party applications designed for the same purpose, such as Dexpot (which provides some visual eye candy with 3D transitions between the different desktops) and VirtuWin. Desktops and VirtuWin allow you to create up to four desktops, whereas Dexpot gives you as many as twenty.

Windows 10 now gives you the ability to do this without installing an extra program, as you can see in Figure 3 below. The “Task View” button on the taskbar shows all of your virtual desktops at the bottom of the screen. In this example, I have three desktops, two of which have applications open and one that’s empty.

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Figure 3

This is actually a great way to stay organized and keep from cluttering up a single screen with many different applications and open files that may not be related to one another. I won’t use it much on my desktop computer, which has five monitors, but it really comes in handy on my Surface Pro 3 when I’m working in desktop mode.

Summary

In this, Part 2 of a 3 part series, we looked at some of the new features in Windows 10 that will be useful to both businesses and consumers. In Part 3, we’ll go hands-on with Windows 10 networking in a business environment.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

 

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