With Windows 10, Microsoft is betting that new strategies, new approaches and one back-to-the-future feature will give consumers and businesses reasons to embrace the platform.
Microsoft is trying to reinvent Windows before it dries up.
For more than a decade, Windows-powered desktops and laptops were the bedrock of human interaction with personal computers.
A couple billion smartphone sales later, Microsoft’s PC-bound operating system plays second fiddle to a Google- or Apple-powered handheld device or tablet in many people’s daily lives.
Just three of every 20 devices sold this year will run Microsoft’s Windows, researcher Gartner estimated in a forecast of PC, tablet and smartphone sales.
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This is the world Microsoft launches Windows 10 into Wednesday.
The company has signaled that Windows 10 brings an end to the practice of releasing new versions of the operating system after years of development. Microsoft has billed Windows as a service, a departure that means major changes for a product in circulation for three decades.
The changes contrast with the world in the 1990s, when Windows was the lever that Microsoft pulled to rise to the top. The Redmond company built increasingly powerful programs that helped a computer’s software play nicely with the underlying hardware, and used that platform to expand into selling a wide range of software tools.
With Microsoft’s PC wheelhouse under assault from portable devices, the company three years ago responded with Windows 8, an operating system tailored for the growing tablet and touch-screen computer markets. It also spent about $8 billion to acquire Nokia’s phone unit, a bid to lift the anemic market share for its smartphone operating system.
Both failed to break Windows from its dependence on the PC.
With Windows 10, Microsoft has tried to stop chasing device types. Instead, the aim is to create an operating system so good that people will want it to follow them from screen to screen, analysts say.
“Microsoft is saying, ‘Maybe we’re not going to get phones,’ ” said Steve Kleynhans, who researches operating systems and mobile devices at Gartner. “ ‘Let’s think about what comes next and be ready for that.’ ”
The latest Windows is designed to appeal to the massive number of existing Windows PC users, but also have the capacity to transition well to smartphones, tablets, virtual-reality tools, or devices that have yet to be built.
“Looking forward, they’ve got this idea where (Windows) is very much adaptive,” said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.
Here are five pillars of Microsoft’s new operating system.
1. Windows is important, but not the only star in Microsoft’s universe
Microsoft during the 2000s judged projects in a large part based on whether they supported Windows. Those that didn’t immediately enhance Windows tended to have a short life span.
Under Chief Executive Satya Nadella, the company is trying to break out of that mold, putting more of its software on Google and Apple platforms and connecting with tools built by competitors.
Why, then, should anybody buy Windows 10 if Microsoft’s best products also appear on other platforms?
“The conversation has really shifted,” said Al Hilwa, an analyst with researcher IDC. “What matters most is the sum total of services you are offering with your operating system.”
Microsoft’s bet with Windows 10 is that its network of software services — Web-accessed file storage, Skype chat platform, Office email and document tools — integrate so seamlessly that users will find a Windows device valuable.
The aim is to reboot the virtuous circle that propelled Windows in earlier eras: one in which developers put their best programs on Windows, hardware-makers build devices tailored to the platform, and consumers find the appeal of both makes it worthwhile to choose Windows.
Nadella has said he wants customers to “love” Windows. Analysts say the future of Microsoft’s consumer businesses may depend on it.
2. Features: The Start Menu returns
The chief complaints about Windows 8? No traditional Start Menu and a jarring transition from the new touch-optimized interface to the familiar desktop mode.
Windows 10 brings back the Start Menu and traditional desktop, and preview versions have won generally positive reviews among technology analysts.
“That is Microsoft asking for permission to get back onto your desktop,” said Kleynhans. “That’s one of the things they have to be thankful for. They were able to screw up at a massive level and survive long enough to fix it.”
Other new features include:
• Cortana, a voice-activated assistant designed to help with tasks like searching the Web, sending emails and setting reminders. The software is making its desktop debut after last year’s introduction on Windows Phone.
• Microsoft Edge, a new browser built from scratch to be faster and leaner, a successor of sorts to Internet Explorer (and its bruised reputation). The familiar “e” icon remains; for some users, it signifies the Internet itself.
• Continuum, which automatically changes the Windows interface based on how the device is used. Think of a touch-optimized mode that activates when a tablet is removed from a keyboard dock, or a smartphone that displays a desktop mode when plugged in to a monitor via a cabled or wireless connection.
3. Windows 10 is the end of the old development model
Think of this week’s launch as the start of a process, not a one-off event.
Consumers will get Windows downloads in waves beginning Wednesday. Business users won’t be able to start downloading the software until next Saturday. And that’s without some features, like enhanced data security, to be rolled out later in the year.
That approach of rolling releases and more frequent updates brings Microsoft in line with Google’s practice with its Android operating system.
It also takes Windows into territory Microsoft entered earlier with its other software. The development teams behind Web-based Office and the Bing search engine, for example, can deliver updates more rapidly.
As for a version of Windows 10 for smartphones, Microsoft hasn’t indicated a release date.
“It’s clear from looking at the betas that the phone version needs quite a bit of work,” said analyst Hilwa.
4. Cost: Free for many, business as usual in the workplace
Microsoft has set a target of 1 billion devices running Windows 10 within three years of launch.
That’s not quite as ambitious as it sounds. Microsoft says there are about 1.5 billion PCs running Windows today, and Windows powers about 90 percent of the roughly 300 million new PCs sold each year.
To jump-start adoption of Windows 10, the company is offering free upgrades to the vast majority of home users. Those who own Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 for personal use can upgrade at no cost for the first year after release via a download from Microsoft.
“We get our clues on this from what’s happening in the mobile world,” Hilwa said. “In the mobile world, you don’t charge for operating systems, and you upgrade more regularly. In all cases, you don’t make direct money out of consumers. That’s a challenge Microsoft has to keep working through.”
For home users not eligible for the free upgrade, individual licenses of Windows 10 Home edition will cost $119. Windows 10 Pro, which comes with added networking and security features for small-business users, will sell for $199.
For businesses, the software will remain more costly. Most copies of Windows are sold to hardware-makers who install it on new computers, or in bulk sales to businesses. Both groups will still have to pay full freight.
The precise cost for those groups is difficult to unpack because of Microsoft’s practice of selling licenses in bulk packages that include technical support and security features.
5. Hit or dud? It probably won’t be clear early
It could be awhile before it’s clear how the software is faring.
Sales figures can be tricky, and if history is any indication, Microsoft won’t provide frequent updates. When it does, be skeptical.
Windows 8 sold about as well as its predecessor during its first few months on the market. But it didn’t hold that pace. Windows 7 still accounts for more than half of Windows users.
First impressions can also be a bit of a misdirection. Windows XP entered the world amid an FBI warning about its security flaws. But updates made it such a comfortable fit that some companies are still paying for Microsoft to support the software nearly 14 years later.
A key gauge, though one that’s hard to track, is the speed at which corporate information-technology departments include Windows 10 in their upgrade plans.
“By year’s end, we will see a lot of indication” as to how businesses view the software, said Thomas Koll, chief executive of Laplink, a Bellevue company that migrates files and settings to different operating systems.
That isn’t to say first impressions don’t matter, especially among personal users.
“With social media the way it is, you’re going to hear about it very quickly,” Kleynhans said. “It doesn’t matter how the press thinks it is. Once it gets into people’s hands, we’ll know. Windows to a very large extent is going to succeed or fail based on word-of-mouth.”