Windows 10: makeover, revolution - or a bit of both?
Written by Philip Magson
If, like me, you remember the debut of Windows 3 in 1990, or the sensational unveiling of Windows 95, it's easy to see how far the iconic operating system has taken us since the days of clunking through DOS commands against an implacable black screen. But since Windows' revolutionary glory days, Microsoft has found itself facing a number of challenges - not least the slow-down of the desktop PC market, or intensifying competition from the tablet and mobile sectors. The upcoming release of Microsoft's latest OS, Windows 10, comes at a time when the US tech giant is pushing to regain its place in the hearts and minds of a new generation of perpetually-connected customers, many of whom no longer view the desktop as an essential part of their social or professional lives...
The glory days
Having been in the industry for more years than I care to remember, and having been an avid PC user before that, I can recall just how exciting Windows used to be. Windows 95 debuted in that year with an expensively-assembled, highly visible marketing campaign featuring a Rolling Stones soundtrack and the cast of the sitcom Friends - people even lined up around the block to buy a copy (or so Microsoft said...). The OS was bundled with games, Internet Explorer and even a few music videos. Windows wasn't just a computing experience, Microsoft was insisting - but a cultural one.
Since the heady days of 1995, Windows has never quite recaptured that era-defining buzz. The last truly great Microsoft OS, Windows XP, was launched in 2001 to similar fanfare - but burned brightest across first decade of the 21st century, presiding over what will surely be seen as the twilight years of the desktop PC's grand hegemony.
The rise of the cloud
In 2014, the world of IT and personal computing has changed significantly - and you only need to look at your iPhone to see how - and how far. Operating systems that cannot keep up with the demands of a multi-platform, multi-device and perpetually-connected world, quickly fall to those that can. Cloud computing means that users have begun to demand a total, unified experience from the desktop and the laptop, to the mobile to the tablet.
The challenges facing Microsoft's OS really stem from the strengths of its rivals: Apple's iOS and Google's Android, which dominate the mobile and tablet markets. Windows 8, released in 2012, was an attempt to move Microsoft into this territory - but I, like many users, found the OS had been pushed so far towards the mobile/tablet user that its core functionality had suffered: an unfamiliar start menu, no 'classic' desktop, intrusive 'tiles' (optimised for touch-screens and not much else) - to name a few unfortunate features. As a PC-loyalist for so long, Windows 8 left me feeling more than a little ignored. After such a period of cultural dominance, Microsoft had gone from creating the zeitgeist to chasing it.
Meet the new boss...
In Windows 10, Microsoft is attempting to redress the balance. The first clue is in the name: such is the level of progress Microsoft is offering with its latest OS, that 'Windows 9' has been skipped entirely. The move is supposed to emphasise Microsoft's shift in focus towards mobile users and the internet - but it's also an obvious move to distance the OS from its awkward predecessor.
Back is the beloved 'Start' menu of Windows-past, complete with search box and convenient shutdown options. Back also is the default desktop and task bar, along with a raft of interesting features/gimmicks, including fresh integration of Windows Apps and customisable Live Tiles. Windows 10 is about Microsoft having its cake and eating it: features and innovations for the mobile user, with a distinct appeal to the legacy of the desktop. Microsoft wants the OS on each of its users' devices: the phone, the tablet, the laptop, the desktop - even the company's next-generation gaming system, the X-Box One. The OS will be optimised for the cloud - letting you share files between devices and back-up or access documents wherever you are in the world.
Same as the old boss?
The capabilities of Windows 10 are undeniably impressive - but they don't carry the revolutionary impact of days gone by. Traditionally Microsoft's arch-nemesis, Apple offers its users two broadly similar operating systems: OSX for desktops and iOS for mobiles. Like Windows 10, both systems focus heavily on cloud computing and are starting to blend functionality - in the latest OSX update, 'Yosemite', users will be able to answer their iPhone through their desktop Mac.
The consequence of the push for 'unified experiences' in the cloud may signal the end for the rock'n'roll spirit of OS glory days that users like me remember so fondly. The Windows 10 experience will be impressive, innovative and very, very similar across each of your devices. That's not a bad thing: the idea of the 'desktop' in a traditional sense no longer really exists and cloud computing already promises a revolution of its very own. Microsoft may not be defining the computing landscape in the way that it once did, but it is listening to its users - and giving us the kind of software we need in the brave new world of cloud computing.
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