With Microsoft ending the year as the most valuable company in the world, it’s fair to say that 2018 was an incredible year for the software giant. Scanning over the thousands of articles we wrote this year, I’ve collected my picks for the top Windows and PC stories of the year.
Here they are.
1. Windows as a (dis)service
Microsoft’s controversial Windows as a Service (WaaS) scheme of updating Windows 10 aggressively entered 2018 on a high note: The previous two feature updates were deployed at an ever-faster pace, with the Fall Creators Update hitting a then-unprecedented 85 percent usage share on the eve of the launch of the next feature update, called the April 2018 Update.
But WaaS is limping out of 2018 with two major defeats behind it: That April 2018 Update was silently delayed when Microsoft found some showstopper issues at the last minute. But the problems continued even after the update was publicly released a month late. And in May, I described this release as “a disgrace.”
I should have held off on this judgment, however: The next release, called the October 2018 Update, was even worse.
This time around, Microsoft didn’t halt the delivery of the update until after it had been prematurely deployed publicly. And it was patently obvious that Microsoft had a major software quality problem on its hands. Its response? Utter silence. For six weeks.
This was, I opined, a fiasco. And by the time that Microsoft finally did start deploying the update again, no one really cared anymore. Which was fine, since the software giant finally put the brakes on: The October 2018 Update is installed on some low single-digit percentage of Windows 10 PCs as we enter the New Year.
If there’s any good news to be had here, and there is, it’s coincidental. Both of these feature updates were light on new features, unlike with the previous releases. And that’s a good thing: If Microsoft could ever figure out its reliability issues, we may finally arrive at a version of Windows 10 we can all be proud of.
2. Windows demoted in major upheaval at Microsoft
In early 2018, we caught wind of a major Windows strategy shift at Microsoft that triggered some of the other top stories noted below. But before the blockbuster news about Terry Myerson broke, the software giant made it clear that Windows was no longer its priority.
And then it happened: Microsoft announced that Terry Myerson, who oversaw Windows 10 development, would be leaving the company. As part of this change, Windows core development would move to the Azure group, new Windows user experiences would be created by a much smaller team, and no one directly responsible for Windows would be on Microsoft’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT).
This triggered a lot of soul searching. For me, watching Windows 10 become something terrible because of in-box advertising, crapware bundling, and nonsense new features (the latter of which finally stopped this past year) has been rough.
I can only hope that 2019 will be better.
3. Microsoft Edge moves to Chromium
In May, I opined that “Microsoft Edge on Windows 10 should be rearchitected—created anew from the ground up—to work as it does on mobile. It should be a user experience shell, a mobile app, built on top of the web browser rendering engine, which in this case is called EdgeHTML and is ‘part’ of Windows 10.”
Then, in September, I noted that Microsoft Edge is what is wrong with Windows 10. Like Windows 10, Edge is full of nonsense features that few people will ever use. This made Edge “a complexity, a mess … full of inconsistencies.”
Then the hammer fell.
In early December, Microsoft announced that it would stop wasting its time trying to make Edge compatible with web standards—a losing battle since the browser is updated only twice a year—and rebuild it on Google’s open-source Chromium engine. Yes, there are doubters; there always are. But this was the right choice for a browser that, frankly, is an also-ran, at best.
Granted, it’s Microsoft. So the announcement was vague on details and poorly-communicated. But after figuring out a few important details separately—for example, yes, Edge will support Chrome’s extensions—even some doubters started to see the light.
“Microsoft embracing Chromium is all upside,” I wrote. “There is no bad news here, at all. And with a suddenly bright future, we can look back on 2018, for all its terribleness, as the time when the software giant finally started fighting back for Windows.”
4. Windows 10 on ARM ushers in the Always-Connected PC era
2018 was the year we finally got to try Windows 10 on ARM on real shipping PCs. And the experience was … not positive.
The problems were many-fold. The initial PCs, based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset, offered stellar battery life and excellent, always-on connectivity. But the performance was terrible, and compatibility was hugely problematic.
Fortunately, Qualcomm has a plan. It released a second-generation Snapdragon 850 chipset for PCs in late 2018 with minor performance gains, and it announced a much improved Snapdragon 8cx for mid-2019 that will finally offer Intel Core i5-level performance. It worked with Microsoft to support64-bit native (but not Intel) apps. And it is bringing both Chromium and Firefox to the platform as well.
The Snapdragon 850 helps Windows 10 on ARM make some sense, assuming you can live with the compatibility issues. But the 8cx is where this platform will really take off. And that’s not happening until next year.
5. Microsoft Embraces Linux with Azure Sphere
We’ve seen headlines about Microsoft “embracing” open source and Linux many times over the past several years. But it wasn’t until the software giant announced its own Linux-based client platform called Azure Sphere that this reality really hit home. Microsoft chose Linux over Windows because Linux is more componentized and can be used on much-lower-end hardware. And of course it fits in neatly with Microsoft’s broader “intelligent cloud, intelligent edge” mantra.
Kind of makes you wonder if embracing Linux more broadly makes even more sense.
6. Microsoft lied about the number of Windows 10 users
Microsoft has a rich history of getting the numbers wrong when it comes to Windows 10—consider the early boast about 1 billion active devices within three years—but this one is particularly disappointing.
In April, Terry Myerson said that there were “nearly 700 million” Windows 10 PCs in use worldwide. And then that figure didn’t change. For months. Finally, by October, the software giant said that the 700 million figure was correct.
Had Windows 10 usage sat still for six months?
No. As it turns out, Microsoft had been artificially inflating usage by including virtual machine installs, most of which are just used for testing. It stopped counting VMs in early 2018, and it wasn’t until October that reality caught up with fiction.
On a related note, I spent a lot of time in 2018 trying to figure out how many Windows PCs there were in use worldwide. But Microsoft finally came clean in October: There are 1.5 billion Windows-powered PCs (all versions) in use around the world.
7. Windows 10 S fails, and then so does S mode
In January, I reported that Windows 10 S had been renamed in a then-recent Windows Insider build, to Windows 10 Pro in S mode. A few weeks later, we discovered this was part of a broader overhaul to the Windows offerings. And that “S mode” would be something that could be offered for Windows 10 Home, Pro, or even Enterprise.
Windows 10 S, of course, was a major failure. And there’s no reason to think that S mode won’t be any less of a failure. But don’t worry: Windows 10 Lean proves that Microsoft hasn’t given up on this silliness yet.
8. Go time: Microsoft finally offers another affordable Surface PC
With rumors suggesting that Microsoft was set to re-enter the affordable PC market with a low-cost Surface Pro-type PC, I celebrated the move. But the resulting product, called Surface Go, under-delivered on the basics: The performance is terrible, the battery life is terrible, and the keyboard isn’t full-sized.
Naturally, Brad loved it.
9. PWAs fail to make a difference in 2018
I’ve been promoting Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) as the future app platform for Windows and elsewhere since 2017, and with PWA supporting coming to Windows 10 in the first half of 2018, I figured we were on the verge of an apps renaissance.
That never happened.
To date, there are only a handful of high-quality PWAs in the Microsoft Store, like Twitter. And rival cross-platform toolsets like Google Flutter, which targets Android and iOS only, threaten to further undermine Windows.
Put simply, the PWA revolution is off to a slow start. And that’s not what I expected at all.
10. Microsoft’s bizarre relationship with USB-C and Thunderbolt 3
Charting Microsoft’s inability to grasp the importance of both USB-C, which is a port type, and Thunderbolt 3, which makes that port more versatile than any other, is painful. So I’ll just summarize it here.
Microsoft ended 2017 by supporting USB-C—but not Thunderbolt 3—on Surface Book 2, giving us all hope that we’d finally see the rest of the lineup moved over to this not-so-new technology in 2018. Surface Go, released late in the summer, had a USB-C port. And then Microsoft announced Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2. Neither of which include USB-C.