It seems like a such a small thing. But the ability to discretely zoom system text elements in Redstone 5 says a lot about Microsoft’s new strategy for Windows 10.
One of the big debates over the years—both inside Microsoft and out—has to do with what Windows is, and what role it plays in the lives of its users. On either end of this debate are two starkly different views. In one view, Windows should be as lean as possible, a platform upon which its users run mostly third-party apps and services. And in the other, Windows is feature-rich and supplies many users with everything the need out of the box.
You can see the shifting sands of Microsoft’s Windows strategy through these views: In Windows Vista, for example, Microsoft went all-in on bundled apps like Windows Mail and Windows Calendar, but in Windows 7, it decoupled those and other apps into a separate, more easily updatable package called Windows Live Essentials. But Windows 8 and 10 mark a return back to feature-rich. Back and forth we go.
With Windows 10 at the three-year mark, however—this is the point in time in which Microsoft has historically shipped a new version of the product—the pendulum is again shifting away from bundled apps. And Microsoft is now focusing more on the core, often productivity-focused, functionality that impacts all users every day.
(This doesn’t mean that Microsoft will decouple the apps that come with Windows 10. Thanks to its new servicing model, these apps can be updated at any time and don’t need to wait for a new Windows version. But I do think we’ll see fewer new apps, and that those apps that Microsoft does add to Windows going forward will be productivity-focused and not niche creativity apps, like we saw in 2017.)
As you probably know, I fully support this important shift from what I call nonsense functionality. And my own view and usage of Windows matches most closely to those who believe that this platform should be optimized for me, and not for the corporate needs of its maker. I may choose to use certain Microsoft apps and services, but if I do so, it will be because they are better. Not because they are made by Microsoft.
More to the point, with Microsoft deemphasizing niche apps and use cases, it is likewise focusing now on these core productivity and usage scenarios that I feel are so important. And throughout the development of this next Windows 10 version, called Redstone 5, what I’ve seen is incredibly exciting. There is no nonsense, no fat, in there at all. This was true months ago. It’s true now. And I feel like it will be true when this thing winds down. It’s a great time to be a Windows fan, and that’s saying something given the months of uncertainty we just endured.
Whether Microsoft ever chases the white whale of consistency in the Windows 10 user experience is uncertain. And, frankly, unlikely. But the firm has taken several steps in Redstone 5 to at least address some important related issues. And even reverse some regressions.
Key among these is one of my longtime Windows 10 complaints. Which is that in the move to supporting high DPI displays—a daunting task given all the legacy desktop software that customers still use—Microsoft moved to a display model in which the user can arbitrarily scale (“zoom” or magnify) onscreen display elements globally. But not discretely by element type as before.
What this means is that you might configure a high DPI display, like that on my Surface Book 2, to 200 or even 225 percent so that on-screen elements are visible and readable. This actually does work pretty well, but it doesn’t address two related issues: That users often prefer to display text at a larger size, globally, than other on-screen elements. And that they also often like to display text in reading-oriented apps (web browsers, word processors, email apps, and so on) at different sizes as well.
The latter case is something that needs to happen at the app level. And Microsoft’s web browser (Edge) and word processor (Word) obviously have long supported this kind of functionality. The Mail app in Windows 10, alas, does not. Yes, you can “zoom” the text/content inside an email message, but only on the fly, and that zooming does not respect the pane borders; it is “zoom” not “scale.” What you can’t do, and this is so obvious a need, is set a custom scale/zoom/magnification level globally for the reading pane. This is one of a few reasons that I cannot use the Mail app.
In Redstone 5, however, Microsoft is addressing the former issue. And in doing so, it is correcting a regression it created with the first version of Windows 10: You will be able to globally change the size of text in the system separately from the zoom/magnification level of other on-screen items again.
This is important. Many people are now overly-zooming their displays in order to make the text big enough for their eyes to read clearly, but doing so makes everything else too big, creating a cartoonish look.
In my case, I mentioned using 200 or 225 percent zoom on the Surface Book. With Redstone 5, I can now use the lower zoom level (200 percent) for the system, but configure text, system-wide, to be zoomed to 125 or 150 percent. The effect is more pleasing to me than the old style: I can use small on-screen user interface elements, but because the text is always bigger now, I can read it more easily. More generally, just having this level of customization is important, and not just for those with vision issues. I routinely make the fonts bigger on my phones as well. And many iPhone users with poor vision know that bolding the font used in system text makes the whole system easier to use.
There are other display improvements coming in Redstone 5; a new video playback mode called “Adjust video based on lighting” will help improve the visibility of videos when played outside or in bright environments, for example. But this “new” ability to resize system text really speaks to the type of thing I love to see Microsoft working on in Windows 10. And if this kind of change is all that Redstone 5 is about, I couldn’t be happier.