Last night Microsoft revealed their next version of Windows to a small audience of about sixty persons. It was a very low-key affair with very little fanfare and hype and it brings me back to the days of the early reveal of Windows 7. Back then, things were also subdued and understated and Microsoft, eager to get rid of Vista’s stigma, showed that they were changing things a little bit and taking concepts from XP and Vista and bringing them together, but not in a way that would alienate everyone altogether.
I get the same vibe from the Windows 10 reveal last night and I have to admit that I’m feeling a lot more positive about the PC world now that Microsoft openly admits that Windows 8 was not as successful or as good as they hoped it would be. Cue lots of humble pie and a focus on returning the PC to its proper place in the computing hierarchy with the other devices now alongside it, instead of being under or above the PC’s importance.
A first look at Windows 10
Microsoft’s presentation was brief and devoid of fluff and technical jargon or marketing buzzwords like “the cloud” or “post-PC era.” Joe Belfiore and Terry Myseron jointly introduced the new operating system and stressed that the jump to Windows 10 was entirely on purpose – as a company now focused on being mobile-first and cloud-first, they have a different outlook on what users want from different devices. Windows 8.1 was pushed out as soon as possible to get the project completed and Windows 8.1 Update changed a few things around to prepare people for the re-focus on productivity as opposed to content consumption.
Microsoft, it seems, realised once more that people use their software because they either have to for productivity purposes, or it’s the sole platform that runs the applications they need. Fluff and terms like “app gaps” and the like belong to the mobile world, its not typically something that laptop and desktop users need to focus on.
It’s no coincidence that there are ten devices in the header image for this article. Microsoft is focusing on having all of those devices run on the same basic platform, but with UI designs and interactivity varying according to the use-case of each device. There’s an embedded platform all the way at the small scale which commonly runs headless and only needs a command line, while the Xbox One with Kinect focused on voice navigation.
An interesting catch-up is the focus on Chromecast-like setups, where you can use Projection on Windows devices to stream a second screen to a larger monitor like a TV or giant touch panel. That’s why they have the massive TV there in the background. Windows 8 with the touch focus finally enabled those sort of devices to exist comfortably, but it wasn’t a focus for the company until recently.
The takeway here is that Microsoft under the leadership of Satya Nadella is a changed company with a different focus. Steve Ballmer worked tirelessly to grow the brand and make it the focus of business use, but stumbled on the mobile revolution and tablets. Windows 8 was a hastily planned idea and could have been done much better. Windows 10 encompasses Microsoft’s unspoken statement that Windows 8 was sort of on the right track, but they had lost their way while trying to draw in the casual user.
If the Xbox One is any indication, this will be good. Belfiore also noted that while the announcement of the operating system and the Technical Preview is to entice enterprise users and early adopters to look at it in greater detail before the general public gets a hold of it next year, they will be talking more about the consumer side of Windows 10 after the /Build/ conference in April 2015.
Announcing the Windows 10 Technical Preview
Along with the fresh approach to the announcements and the low-key way in which Microsoft has begun ushering Windows 10 in to the world, they’ve announced the Technical Preview. This is very similar to the developer preview with Windows 8 and, you might recall, the Windows 7 Beta (complete with that awesome fish). It’ll be free to download from Microsoft’s website in short notice at about 6:00PM today and it’ll be a constantly changing operating system. Microsoft doesn’t suggest that people install it as their main OS because a lot of things might not work properly, although that’s probably what I’m going to be doing anyway.
Windows 10 will have an Insider Program which allows users of the Technical Preview to use the OS and submit their thoughts and feelings on how things are shaping up or currently working. Although the base features are there, the implementations of these features and their placement and approach will change as Microsoft learns more about how people use Windows 10.
You can head over to the preview website at preview.windows.com for more information. That page will change later into feedback forms and a place for Microsoft to display extra information. The Technical Preview is also the base version that will become Windows 10 Enterprise, so you’ll get to test out a lot of the super high-end features not commonly available to the public.
Along with the Technical Preview, the company will probably be doing the same thing they were attempting with Windows 8, where key developers on the OS blog and write about what’s going on behind the scenes while development is ongoing to alert people to things they may not have discovered otherwise, or explain the rationale for decisions made which may change how you complete tasks or approach problem-solving.
Lots of UI improvements coming our way
Quite a few improvements have been made to the desktop and how it works, so lets go over them quickly. The desktop is pretty familiar, but the Start menu is definitely back. This is a mix of Windows 7 and 8/8.1, but now Live tiles exist next to the old legacy interface. The power button is still there, the link to the user profile is still there, there’s links to your files and folders, contextual search that now includes web search results from Bing (now MSN Search) and a link to a list of all the applications on your PC.
There’s no longer any need to switch to the full-screen Start menu and no jarring change of the user interface. Although I much prefer to use the Start menu in Windows 8.1 as a launcher for desktop applications, this is an acceptable compromise. If you want things the same way as they are now in 8/8.1, the options for the “old” Start menu are still found under “Taskbar and Navigation Properties,” accessible through right-clicking the taskbar and selecting Properties.
All Modern applications now launch in your desktop in a windowed mode, similar to how things are now with Windows 8.1 Update. You can snap them, maximise or minimise and stack them on your desktop just like a normal application. Microsoft chose Modern’s requirements very smartly back when Windows 8 was launched because every Modern app has to use vector-based images that scale properly and UI buttons and text that is high-DPI aware.
Modern apps, Belfiore mentioned, are also encapsulated and run in their own sandbox so that no one app can crash the system they’re running on. Mouse and keyboard capture also works similarly to a virtual machine, so you have to make the app your active frame for any input to be recognised, although it is also mouse-aware so the app knows when the cursor is hovering over it even when other parts are covered by other windows.
Snap changes drastically as well. If you have multiple applications active in the background and foreground and Snap one of them to the side of the screen, a small glass effect takes over the other half of the desktop and shows you an overview of the applications that are still left running and un-Snapped. You can either click on an open area to make the overview go away, or you can click on an open app to have Windows auto-fill in the open screen space for you with that application.
The regular multi-windows options are also still available through right-clicking the taskbar and selecting to cascade or stack open applications. The app overview and snap can also be invoked through using ALT-TAB, pressing the Task Switcher button on the task bar with your mouse or using the Windows Key+Number shortcut to launch it.
Although the demo of this was shown with a 1080p monitor and Windows segmented the screen automatically into quadrants, I expect that running on a 1440p or even a UltraHD 4K/5K monitor will open up more sections for snapping.
Hooray, virtual desktops! I don’t have to feel so cramped using one display with a notebook anymore! This is opened up using all the same methods as the new Snap mode and from here you can close apps and even click and Snap them right here. You can presumably add as many virtual desktops as you want, within limits of your system’s available RAM.
One interesting feature not on Microsoft’s official blogs was shown in a video preview on the stage and its called “Continuum.” Joe Belfiore noted that it was still in early development, but would be functional on the release of the Technical Preview. If you’re using a hybrid device like the Surface Pro tablet, or use a monitor with a touch panel, Windows will pop up this notification when you detach the keyboard or hook up the monitor and ask if you want to enter into “tablet mode.”
What really happens is, on-the-fly, Windows swaps out the updated GUI for something more akin to Windows 8.1, complete with the Charms bar, the active task switcher brought in through swipes from the left, the ability to close apps with a swipe down from the screen and the full-screen Start menu.
What I’d like to see is whether this allows me to use the Start menu full-screen, but have the desktop tile represent one of my virtual desktops that I’ve created. Instead of launching these desktops via the new Snap mode, I’d be able to just press the Windows key, mouse to the one I want and click it.
That’s all there is to show for now! Catch up later by watching the video I’ve embedded above and if you want, give the Technical Preview a try when it’s available to download later this evening. Install it in a virtual machine first if you’re not comfortable with swapping out your current Windows installation for one that’s still in the very early stages of becoming a beta.