It’s become an industry joke that successive versions of Windows are alternately beloved and despised. Good one, bad one; good one, bad one. Windows 98, Windows Me. Windows XP, Windows Vista. Windows 7, Windows 8.
But Windows 8 wasn’t a flop because of some metaphysical binary karma. It was a flop because Microsoft made a terrible losing bet: that the world was about to move to touchscreen laptops and desktop PCs.
To anticipate that revolution, Microsoft came up with a whole new interface— a touchscreen-oriented overlay for the traditional Windows desktop —that was first called Metro, then Modern, and now has no official name at all.
I call it TileWorld, because it’s made of bright, colorful tiles that represent your apps and programs.
Trouble is, the Windows 8 desktop and TileWorld are two separate environments, clumsily stapled together. Each has its own Help system, Web browser, email program, control panel, conventions, and gestures. And each runs its own kind of programs. Regular Windows programs open at the desktop, as always — but TileWorld apps open in TileWorld, with no menus or overlapping windows. As Infoworld columnist Woody Leonhard wrote, “Windows 8 is a failure — an awkward mishmash that pulls the user in two directions at once.”
On Wednesday, Microsoft showed the world more of Windows 10, which it expects to release later this year. All kinds of news emerged in the announcement today, but the biggest one is this: Microsoft has realized the foolishness of splitting Windows into two, and is taking giant strides to unify it back again.
What We Knew About Windows 10
Back in September, Microsoft gave a sneak peek of its new Windows 10 direction.
That’s when we learned that, when you use Windows 10 with a mouse and keyboard, the good old Start menu is back, and the TileWorld Start screen is gone. No more screen of big flat tiles taking over your monitor. The tiles are still there, but now they pop out of the regular Start menu. You can expand them to fill the whole screen if you prefer — but either way, TileWorld doesn’t feel as much as though you’ve left your home base behind.
Then there are those TileWorld apps, the tablet-y ones that fill the screen and have no menus or overlapping windows. In Windows 10, they open up on the desktop, in regular windows with regular title bars and window controls. You can still see your desktop, and you can see TileWorld apps and regular Windows programs side by side.
Now, if you run Windows 10 on a tablet, you do still get TileWorld — a Start screen and apps that fill the full screen. In fact, on hybrid laptops (those with a detachable screen), Windows offers to switch into TileWorld mode automatically when you detach the screen, hiding the Start menu and putting your apps full-screen.
What We Learned Today
Today, Microsoft revealed that it has fixed another infuriating aspect of Windows 8: “the confusion between the Control Panel and the settings of Windows,” as Microsoft executive Joe Belfiore put it onstage today.
Microsoft has finally merged the two separate Control Panels (TileWorld and desktop) into one. Say hallelujah and pass the cider!
Microsoft also demonstrated what it calls the Action Center, a column that pops onto the right edge of your screen and lists your latest notifications, like the Notification Center on the Mac. But Microsoft’s version adds one-touch, control center-y settings buttons at the bottom (Airplane Mode, Brightness, WiFi on/off, and so on), and lets you interact with the notifications in more ways than just Reply and Delete. Handy and welcome.
The picture above also shows how the Search box now appears on the task bar, rather than in the Start menu, in Windows 10.
There’s a new Web browser, code-named Spartan, in the works, too. It catches up to the world’s other browsers by adding the option to save a page for offline reading later. Microsoft also showed how you can type or draw notes onto a page, then share a screenshot of your annotations. But if it solves the duplicate-browser problem (TileWorld/desktop) of Windows 8, I’m all for it.
Cortana on Fire
The biggest headline of all is the evolution of Cortana, which is Microsoft’s version of Siri (the voice-activated “personal assistant” on the iPhone and iPad). In Windows 10, Cortana’s voice sounds infinitely more human and less robotic, and she seems to have more personality and humor.
Above all, though, she leapfrogs Siri in one critical way: She now works on the desktop. On your computer, not just your phone.
You can say, “Show me my photos from January” or “Show me my PowerPoint slides about the board meeting,” for example, and she’ll round them up for you. Say, “Send an email to my sister,” and Cortana gets the email started (and queries you about the subject line and body).
In an office, of course, you might not want everybody yammering away at their Cortanas. Microsoft hinted that you’ll be able to type your commands this way, too.
This development — bringing casual, syntactically free-form speech recognition to the desktop — is simultaneously surprising and obvious. We’ve seen people speak to their computers on “Star Trek” for 40 years; if the technology is available on phones, why on earth shouldn’t it come to our computers?
We have no way of knowing how much of Microsoft’s demo today was canned. But what we saw made it look like Cortana is the new standard of voice-activated sophistication, power, friendliness, and usefulness. It’s Windows 10’s masterstroke.
Microsoft also spoke today about new “universal” apps — apps that you buy once, and then run on your Windows 10 phone, tablet, and computer. It’s a fascinating concept, a bold one that makes a lot of sense. Mr. Belfiore demonstrated universal versions of both Microsoft Office and a new app called Photos; other universal apps include Videos, Music, Maps, People & Messaging, and Mail & Calendar.
If universal apps catch on, they could save a lot of people a lot of learning. In today’s super-connected world, where our phones, tablets, and computers are often part of the same ecosystem, wouldn’t it be nice if we had to learn only one set of conventions, gestures, and locations of things?
Windows 10, Mr. Belfiore stressed repeatedly, is in the very early stages; he warned the audience at least four times that there might be glitches in the demonstrations (fortunately, there weren’t any).
And what he showed was a very tiny glimpse of Windows 10 as a whole. We’ll be learning more in the coming months as Microsoft offers increasingly complete versions to the public for testing and comment.
But among the things Microsoft showed today, there’s not a single misstep. Everything that the Windows team has worked on is rowing in the right direction. The company has taken huge strides toward erasing Windows 8’s disorienting split personality, which will mean a lot less confusion for us, the people.
According to the legend of alternately great and terrible Windows releases, the next Windows version ought to be a big hit. If what we saw today is any indication, that’s exactly what Windows 10 is shaping up to be.