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Why Windows 10 isn't the big leap forward Microsoft says it is

Why Windows 10 isn't the big leap forward Microsoft says it is

Given what we've seen so far, this appears to be the case – but is it really enough to justify skipping Windows 9?

As I wrote for Computerworld, Windows 10 has a lot to answer for and it sets itself up for answering these questions in a big way by skipping a version number and jumping straight to 10 from 8.

"But Jon, this is just a marketing ploy," you might say. You might be right. As a writer, though, I believe words and numbers mean things. Jumping two major version numbers and calling the next version revolutionary is a strong statement.

[ Related: Why Windows 10 Isn't Named 9: Windows 95 Legacy Code? ]

I see Windows 10 at this point focused on three major areas: The user interface, under-the-hood improvements to the way Windows is both built and delivered, and furthering Microsoft's vision of touch while reconciling that vision with the fact that its core bread-and-butter customers don't yet care about touch.

Now, Windows 10 is only in technical preview form. A lot of features don't yet exist, and a lot of refinements still have to be made. This isn't a review of Windows 10, nor is it a final exam. But is what's in the Windows 10 technical preview build right now, and the promises of what it will contain in the future, enough to justify a two-version number leap? Let's dig in.

Windows UI Refinements Don't Go From 8 to 10

Easily the area most people will notice Windows 10 changes is the user interface. The traditional Start menu is back. What's more, the Continuum feature will finally blur the boundary enough between touch and tablet interaction and the use of keyboards and mice on the same device to make a single device for both work and play a viable option. The general sense that fit and finish have been applied will make Windows 10 shine, even at this early stage.

[ Features: First Look at Windows 10 and 12 Things to Know About Windows 10 ]

There's a lot to like about the user interface refinements in the Windows 10 technical preview. From an end user perspective, though, are they worthy of a jump of two version numbers? You could be forgiven for thinking this was Windows 8.2, or even (if you successfully ignored Windows 8) Windows 7.5.

There's merit to this angle. Last week's press event had an element of groveling and a small air of apology, too as if Microsoft thought it was necessary to say, "Hey, we didn't listen to you, but this is what we should have done two years ago." I bet they really feel that way, too.

Major Changes to Kernel, Operating System Fundamentals

I think the real reason Microsoft jumped version numbers is because of the massive changes required to the architecture of Windows to further some design goals.

Many of the underlying changes that aren't necessarily visible to users and administrators are the technical foundations required to support "universal apps," which are basically Windows Phone, Windows, Metro and Modern apps. This lets developers have an idea for an app and code from a single project the Windows application, the Metro app for it, a version for Windows Phone 8+ devices and, then, a way to keep all of those apps updated through a store experience or through a corporate deployment.

[ Also: What Windows 10 Means for the Enterprise and IT Will Love Windows 10 ]

That's a tall order of course, but the end goal is an operating system, according to Terry Myerson, Microsoft's executive vice president of operating systems, that will "run on the broadest amount of devices. A tailored experience for each device." Myerson further details the Windows 10 vision: "There will be one way to write a universal application, one store, one way for apps to be discovered, purchased and updated across all of these devices."

Other massive changes under the hood involve the new way Microsoft plans to deliver updates and future versions of Windows. The current plan consists of three update "cadences" for Windows: The breakneck consumer-oriented pace, the enterprise stability release and something in between, which I suppose you can call the Goldilocks option, as it's not too fast, not too slow and, in fact, just right.

There's also speculation, fueled by job postings revealed over the summer of 2014, that Windows updates may be delivered in an entirely new manner, almost like subscribing to a branch of the Winmain code repository at Microsoft rather than relying on patch management systems such as Windows Update, Windows Server Update Services and others that use hotfix style updates to patch over and change key system files. This new method of delivering Windows will supposedly allow for faster updates that have fewer negative consequences although it's difficult to be sure of this, given no one has seen this system in the wild yet.

Windows Touch More Intuitive But Corporate Users Won't Notice

File this one under HTFDWDWT, an acronym I just coined for "How the F--- Do We Deal With Touch?"

Microsoft has wrestled with this question for more than a decade, all the way back to the Windows tablet PCs that ran Windows XP Tablet Edition in the early 2000s. Clearly, most business users rejected the touch-first, desktop mouse- and keyboard-second approach that Windows 8 provided. While Windows 8.1 and its subsequent updates address two or three of the main complaints these types of users had, it was clear to Microsoft that a total rethinking of its audience was necessary and that traditional enterprises with keyboards and mice but no Windows tablets shouldn't be relegated to second-class citizens in favor of consumer oriented devices.

The Continuum feature, which doesn't yet exist outside of Redmond, seems to have neatly solved this problem. The video demonstration and proof of concept shown at the Windows 10 press event shows a well-thought-out way for Windows to behave depending upon what input devices are present and, more importantly, what new input devices are attached and which ones are removed.

Windows 10 will automatically move into touch mode, make applications full screen, and switch to the Metro-style interface when a user touches the screen, removes the Surface keyboard cover or does something else to suggest tablet use. When a keyboard, external monitor or other device is reattached, giving away the user's intent, it automatically re-windows applications, switches back to desktop mode and pops up helpful but non-intrusive guidance in the bottom right corner of the screen.

[ More: Why Windows 10 Is the 'BYOD Windows' ]

This seamless switching between modes successfully makes the boundaries between these mini-environments seamless and, assuming the actual code execution goes as smoothly as the video shows, embodies what Microsoft has been after since the initial release of Windows 8. Ah, what should have been.

So Microsoft has answered how it intends to deal with touch. Is that worthy of a two-version number jump? Is that revolutionary enough to mean something for customers? Are there enough Windows touch users in the world to care right now? Will Windows 10 interest enough customers to make them Windows touch device users? Only time will tell but I'm not sure this is a big enough development either. Why wouldn't Windows 8.5 have had this refined an experience?

Again, this isn't a final analysis of Windows 10. Much is fluid about the OS now. That said, do we really believe Windows 10 is so fundamentally ahead of Windows 8 that it's two version-numbers better? Do words and numbers really mean something when it comes to this release?

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