I hope readers will pardon the carpentry pun, but Windows 10 is just around the corner, and Redmond’s new OS will create many possibilities for software and hardware developers.
Windows 10 represents a departure from Microsoft’s traditional OS strategy. It’s not just a new operating system, it’s an automatic and free update for millions of Windows 8.1 devices. It’s also designed to address a number of user complaints related to the Windows 8.x UI (formerly known as Metro design language or Metro UI). The changes aren’t just skin deep, as Windows 10 is not a mere redesign with a new UI and fancier apps; it might even mark the start of a new era for Microsoft, and in this post I will explain why.
First, let’s take a look at what Microsoft is trying to do in terms of addressing Windows 8.x foibles. After all, that’s what Windows 10 is all about, at least on the surface.
Picking up Where Windows 8 Failed – on Tablets
Microsoft started working on Windows 8 before Windows 7 was released in 2009. Windows 7, which was basically Windows Vista done right, quickly gained a good reputation for sorting out a number of issues which plagued its ill-fated predecessor. As such, Windows 8 had a lot to live up to, but in addition to raising the bar for traditional Windows Microsoft hoped to make it tablet-friendly. This resulted in a number of controversies concerning the company’s UI choices, starting with the boot to Start approach, the lack of a traditional Start menu, and the poor performance of the new Metro-style UI on desktops and laptops with no touch support.
Microsoft gambled on a tablet-style UI, and in hindsight this was not a good decision. Reviewers lambasted the original release, claiming that it would merely alienate traditional desktop users for the sake of a few million tablet users. Microsoft’s Surface tablets didn’t help, either. Windows RT, or Windows on ARM, was a flop. Microsoft recently announced that Windows RT would not get a Windows 10 update. In the meantime, Intel developed a number of x86 System-on-Chip (SoC) solutions capable of running “real” Windows on inexpensive tablets.
In fact, Intel liked these 22nm Bay Trail processors so much that it ended up giving millions away for free in 2014 through its contra revenue programmes. That’s how the chipmaker managed to ship 46 million units, many of which ended up in cheap Windows tablets. While it may sound like an odd decision, it allowed Intel to gain a foothold in the tablet SoC space with Microsoft more than eager to get on board. Both companies had a vested interest in getting x86 platforms into as many tablets as possible, since their market share in the tablet space was abysmal. Microsoft returned the favour by making Windows with Bing available free of charge (with some restrictions), which meant that hardware makers could get a cutting-edge Intel chip and Microsoft’s x86 operating system free, provided they respected Intel’s and Microsoft’s guidelines.
At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with Windows 10 development - but believe me, it will prove very relevant over the next few years. Intel and Microsoft learned a painful lesson in the mobile segment, and they won’t make the same mistake twice. Both companies are in it for the long haul. Their idea is not to conquer the tablet market, but to transform it by blurring the lines between tablets and ultraportable notebooks. Intel calls such devices 2-in-1s, and it finally has 14nm processors (Core M series) capable of bringing notebook levels of performance to Windows tablets.
Research firms IDG and Gartner recently published their 2015 tablet market forecasts, and they proved what many analysts have been saying for years – Microsoft and Intel will do well in the long run. IDC expects the market share of Android and iOS tablets to remain stagnant, while Windows tablets and 2-in-1s will gain share this year going from 5.1% in 2014 to 7.0% in 2015. By 2019, Windows tablets are expected to command a 14.1% market share at the expense of Android and iOS tablets. Gartner’s figures point to a similar trend, although the firm’s forecast only offers estimates for 2015 and 2016.
Bottom line, sales of Windows desktops and notebooks are expected to go down over the next few years while sales of ultramobile devices and tablets will see strong growth. This will obviously make Windows a much more attractive platform for tablet development.
What About Windows 10 Phones and Universal Apps?
It’s been awhile since Microsoft updated its smartphone operating system, but even when it was fresh it failed to grab a sizable market share. This obviously caused problems for the platform, as Windows developers were reluctant to invest resources in developing Windows Phone apps – iOS and Android were much bigger and more lucrative.
This won’t change anytime soon.
There was nothing wrong with Windows Phone 7.5 or 8.1 for that matter. The OS was lean and made good use of limited hardware resources, so it worked well on inexpensive and underpowered devices that would struggle with Android. There was not a lot of fragmentation either, because Microsoft carefully limited what sort of hardware could be used in Windows phones.
However, intense competition in the smartphone market prevented Windows phones from taking off. While Windows works better on underpowered hardware, this really isn’t much of a selling point nowadays since low-end Android phones ship with relatively powerful hardware and plenty of RAM.
Windows 10 won’t change much in the near future, but it has one thing going for it. Windows 10 development is all about harmonizing user experience on different devices, and Microsoft thinks it has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the Windows 10 universal app platform. The concept may sound simple, but it will take Microsoft a lot of effort to put it into practice. Microsoft showcased the universal app platform at the Mobile World Congress in early 2015 and outlined its vision in a series of blog posts
As the name implies, the universal platform is not just for phones. Microsoft’s ultimate goal is to allow platform convergence that will enable one app to run on your phone, PC, Xbox, tablet, or even the HoloLens AR headset.
It doesn’t stop there. At last week’s Build event, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 will also support Android and iOS apps, although some additional work will be necessary. Luckily, much of the process will be automated, relying on Microsoft SDKs in Objective C for iOS apps and Java and C++ for Android apps.
This is obviously great news for Windows 10 developers. Being able to develop one app for virtually all Microsoft consumer platforms should make all of them more attractive. What’s more, it will enable developers to maximize return on investment, especially if Android and iOS apps are easily tweaked to run on Windows (and don’t suffer from significant performance issues).
Microsoft will help developers by letting the platform do most of the runtime adaptation, thus freeing up developers to focus on less tedious tasks and improve user experience.
Here is how Microsoft outlines the benefits afforded by Windows 10 universal apps:
- Adaptive UX with screen layout (no more UI definitions) and runtime user controls.
- Natural user inputs, incorporated gestures, voice, eye tracking, and more.
- Cloud-based services will be fully integrated.
- Cortana and Action Center functionality will be expanded and feature more integration.
As far as HTML goes, Windows will allow developers to take advantage of a few new goodies including:
- A new rendering engine.
- A new browser, codenamed Project Spartan.
- Superior Web App support allowing users to create Store apps with as little effort as possible.
Of course, the list doesn’t end there. Windows 10 will end up with a lot of tweaks, like the Start button, and major updates like DirectX 12.
Windows 10 vs. Windows 8.x
Let’s take a closer look at some of these changes:
I already talked about this concept, so it’s a good place to start. Windows apps will be available in a unified app store, and they will be compatible with 5-inch phones and 55-inch displays. Apps will also get more controls, so live tiles will be resizeable like traditional windowed programs.
Microsoft is trying to improve multitasking by integrating a Task View button on the taskbar (although ALT+TAB will still work). You will be able to lay out up to four apps on a single screen, rather than just two. What makes Task View different is that it will enable users to use “virtual desktops”, which will basically bring a “tabbed” experience to desktop. You will be able to have all your personal stuff in one desktop, while keeping another uncluttered desktop for business. Used correctly, this approach could be great for productivity.
Command Prompt overhaul
The good old Command Prompt is often overlooked, but it’s still a crucial feature for many power users and developers. Microsoft will finally do something about it, as in enable copy and paste in the prompt. This will obviously speed up a lot of menial tasks.
Start button resurrected
Microsoft finally gave in – the traditional Start Button will return and it will also open up a pane of live tiles on the right, next to the Start Menu, which is also making a return.
The Start Menu will feature a search bar, but a search button will also be added to the taskbar. Personally, I think this is a very good decision because it will bring the convenience of the current live pane view search to desktop.
Mobile Device Management (MDM)
MDM will allow administrators to access and manage multiple devices using System Center and Active Directory. Support for mobile device management and cloud integration will be an integral part of Windows 10.
DirectX 12 could be a big thing for the gaming industry, and it deserves a much more comprehensive write-up. Microsoft shared a lot of information on the upcoming API in a number of announcements and blog posts.
DirectX12 will bring code “closer to metal”, and this approach might sound familiar if you kept track of AMD’s Mantle API. DirectX 12 will also work on mobile devices, desktops, and the Xbox One. A lot of new GPUs are already compatible with DirectX 12, but the API will be rolled out in late 2015 so it’s not too relevant right now.
Authentication, Cortana, Continuum and more
Windows Hello will try to dispense with password authentication in some situations, while Cortana will find its way to all Windows platforms. Continuum will enable an adaptive UI, so Windows will know whether it’s running on an 8-inch tablet, a tablet connected to a TV, a 2-in-1, or a standard desktop. Project Spartan, which I already mentioned, is aiming to end Internet Explorer jokes once and for all (and that’s obviously a lot to ask for).
End of an Era, or End of an Error
Windows 10 will be Redmond’s first new release in years under new management. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is a controversial figure, to say the least. The ever flamboyant Ballmer was Microsoft’s chief exec for 14 years, overseeing a number of successes and very public failures. Ballmer is often blamed for Microsoft’s failure to recognize the potential of connected devices like smartphones and tablets, and he admits this was a big mistake.
However, Ballmer can’t be blamed for every single flaw in every Microsoft product. Ballmer was replaced by Satya Nadella a year ago, so the new regime will get all the credit for Windows 10 provided everything goes well. It should be noted that a lot of the “new” stuff was actually in development during the Ballmer era. Whatever happens, Ballmer won’t be part of it as he will be too busy dealing with the LA Clippers instead.
Apart from purely technical aspects, Windows 10 development differs from previous releases by the way it will be distributed. All Windows 7, Windows 8.x, and some Windows Phone users will get the update for free, so Microsoft is clearly moving toward a different business model. Windows updates of the future may resemble Android and iOS over-the-air updates rather than traditional Microsoft releases. This is good news for mass adoption, fragmentation concerns, and security.
Speaking of security, users will also be able to opt in for faster security updates, so they won’t have to wait for monthly patches. Another option is to lock down certain apps and distribute updates to various user groups on different schedules.
To summarize, this is what developers should expect from Windows 10:
- A lot more Windows tablets and 2-in-1s.
- More integration across different platforms.
- Faster, automatic updates resulting in bigger user base and less fragmentation.
- DirectX 12 capabilities across all Windows platforms (2016 and beyond).
- New renderer, new browser.
- Copy paste in Command Prompt – might not sound like a big deal, but a lot of users will appreciate it.