Windows 10X: Train wreck in slow motion – or the future of Windows?

Microsoft hasn't said much about Windows 10X – and what it has spelled out so far leaves the company's plans unclear. Is 10X the next version of Windows 10? Or a dead end?

If you’re a resolute Windows watcher, you may have heard about Windows 10X, the new version of Windows Microsoft has been cooking up. But there’s a great deal of confusion about Windows 10X, because Microsoft hasn’t been forthcoming about its primary purpose, or why anyone might ever want to use it.

Recently, though, Microsoft has provided a few more details about 10X, and the outlines of the new operating system are coming into focus. What’s not yet clear though, is whether this new Windows iteration will become the harbinger of a new generation of Windows software, or a slow-motion train wreck.

For some clues about which it might be, let’s take a look at what we know. For a start, Microsoft stripped out any legacy elements that tied it to previous versions of Windows, and has re-thought many basic parts, including the Start menu and taskbar. In fact, in an early version, there is no Start menu.

Windows 10X will run all applications in containers. That should help with security, but could also lead to performance issues. And there will likely be compatibility issues. Some existing software, such as anti-piracy and anti-cheat tools in older games may not work on it. AT least, according to Microsoft, when Windows 10X updates on a device, it will be simpler and take much less time than Windows 10 does.

Beyond that, in a blog post, Panos Panay, Microsoft’s chief product officer for Windows and devices, said Windows 10X devices would “leverage the power of the cloud to help our customers work, learn and play in new ways.” Although he didn’t provide any details about what that means, we do know Windows 10X is for mobile devices rather than traditional desktops.

Until recently, Microsoft has been saying that the operating system was being designed specifically for a new generation of mobile, dual-screen devices, such as one that Microsoft has been working on, the Surface Neo; it will have two 9-in. screens, a pen, keyboard, and 360-degree folding hinge. (It appears, by the way, that the Neo will be delayed beyond its original release in time for the 2020 holiday season. It most likely will arrive in 2021.)

Panay now says Windows 10X will run on devices that use only one screen, not two. In explaining why Microsoft made that change, he pointed to “the times we are in” (in other words, the time of the pandemic), where people are using Windows more than ever. He claimed that worldwide, “over 4 trillion minutes are being spent on Windows 10 a month, a 75% increase year on year.”

He went on to add: “The world is a very different place than it was last October when we shared our vision for a new category of dual-screen Windows devices…. Our customers are leveraging the power of the cloud more than ever, and we believe the time is right to lean into this acceleration in a different way. With Windows 10X, we designed for flexibility, and that flexibility has enabled us to pivot our focus toward single-screen Windows 10X devices….These single-screen devices will be the first expression of Windows 10X that we deliver to our customers.”

What he didn’t explain: how a single-screen Windows 10X device will be different than a single-screen Windows 10 device. Will it be more powerful or less? Larger or smaller? Require more battery power or less power? What will it do that Windows 10 won’t do?

Microsoft isn’t saying.

There’s a very good chance the devices will be smaller, less powerful, have longer battery lives, and be cloud-driven. Chromebooks are one possible model for them.

Microsoft has been down the road of releasing two separate versions of Windows before, and the results weren’t pretty. Back when Windows 8 was a big deal, Microsoft developed and released an operating system called Windows RT, built for devices that use ARM chips. It was designed for less-powerful hardware that require less battery life than traditional laptops, just as Windows 10X appears to be. It was underpowered and didn’t run Windows desktop software such as Office. And, as with Windows 10X, it didn’t have a Start menu.

All this sounds eerily similar to what little we know about Windows 10X. And there’s a good chance Windows 10X may suffer the same fate as Windows RT. How well will containers really work — will they run traditional Win32 apps well? No one knows at this point. How will people react to having to run a different version of the Windows than the main one, that does away with the basic interface, such as not having a Start menu? How will users feel about switching back and forth between Windows devices that use two separate interfaces, one with Windows 10, and one with Windows 10X?

My guess is not very well. And it doesn’t bode well that Microsoft can’t even explain why someone might want to run a Windows 10X device rather than traditional Windows 10 hardware. The company has yet to provide a reason why Windows 10X should exist.

As a standalone operating system, I’m betting Windows 10X will bomb – though there could still be some use for it. Microsoft might consider it an experiment to see how people react to a variety of new features and interfaces in a Windows operating system, and then port the best of what it finds to Windows 10.

In the long run, that could mean an improved Windows 10. But it would also mean that thousands or millions of people would have to pay to be guinea pigs by buying Windows 10X devices. I wouldn’t want  to be one of them. Would you?

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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