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The Future of Windows, Vaguely (Premium)

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When I launched the SuperSite for Windows in 1998, I promised to discuss “the future of Windows, today” and to do so in detail. Now, suddenly, that is no longer possible anymore.

Which is strange, because Windows 10 was created and developed in a wonderfully open reaction to the secrecy-plagued release that preceded it. When Terry Myerson took over the Windows team from Steven Sinofsky, his first order of business was to undo all the terribleness that his predecessor enacted. That’s why the Windows Insider program exists: Windows 10, he declared, would not be developed behind closed doors. It would happen transparently and with the participation of the community.

Those lofty goals have fallen by the wayside in the recent years, and not just because Terry was unceremoniously shown the door after controversially fulfilling the Satya Nadella edict that Windows 10 needed to somehow fit into the “cloud first, mobile first … OK, just cloud first” strategy for the broader Microsoft. Today, Windows 10 is updated as if it were a service, but poorly, because it’s not a service. And Terry is gone. So, sadly, is the transparency.

What we’ve seen in recent years is a predictable backslide into silence from the Windows team. Which isn’t a team anymore, but let’s not get bogged down in the details. After making annual pledges to make Windows 10 more exciting by adding largely pointless new features that demoed well at trade shows, and then failing to deliver on those promises, Microsoft has grown largely silent when it comes to Windows 10. Indeed, it is notable, I think, that Joe Belfiore, the focal point of those broken promises and a beloved figure in the Windows community, played no role at all in this month’s Build conference “vision” keynote. Windows was basically nowhere to be seen.

The Insider program, too, suffers from its inability to communicate effectively or at all. The Fast ring is skipping the testing of the next version of Windows 10, version 19H2, and moving forward to the next-next release instead, called 20H1. Why? We weren’t told, and the assumption has to be that Microsoft feels that its most passionate and enthusiastic fans don’t need to know. This is how things happened under Sinofsky, by the way.

And then there was the weirdness of this week’s Computex announcements, in which Microsoft curiously slid vague information about “a modern OS,” no, sorry, “Modern OS,” between concrete announcements about very real Windows PCs and very real IoT developments. This Modern OS is a thing that may or may not be Lite OS, or it may or may not be a future Windows 10 version, there’s no way to know. But parsing the language of the announcement—OK, the manifesto—it reads like the future. Like we’re not talking about Windows 10.

And seriously, Microsoft, what the f#$%. That’s how you start talking about some future system that will either sit alongside Windows 10 as a Chrome OS-type simpler environment or will, in fact, replace Windows 10? Doesn’t this conversation require clarity?

What I find most disturbing about this episode is the predictable and all-too-familiar—and Sinofsky-esque—way in which Microsoft has pulled the iron curtain of silence down in the wake of its vague revelations. When asked if this Modern OS discussion was about Windows 10 or something new, Microsoft simply said it had nothing to announce at this time. Which begs the question: Why was this confusing information put into a formal Microsoft blog post in the first place?

So, here’s where I’m at.

The very fact that Microsoft did not once use the words “Windows” or “Windows 10” to describe this Modern OS is telling. This is about a new thing that is not Windows, a thing that will hopefully not make the mistakes of the Windows RT and S mode past by offering a system that looks and works exactly like Windows but does not run Windows applications.

There’s been a lot of speculation about what, exactly, this Modern OS is. Maybe it’s Lite OS, or Windows Core OS (WCOS), or whatever other nonsense names from which you wish to cherry-pick. But I’ve been told that Microsoft still doesn’t know exactly what it can deliver and when, and that its plans are still in flux. The future, as it turns out, is always in motion. Yoda was right.

And I suspect that its previous defeats—again, Windows RT and S mode—are making Microsoft a bit nervous about getting it right this time. But the delays are not the issue. The silence is the issue.

And really, that is the problem. What Microsoft needs to do is engage the ecosystem—its customers, its partners, its developers—and have an honest and transparent conversation about its vision for this Modern OS. Get feedback from each about what they expect and need. Adjust the plans accordingly. Explain that Modern OS and Windows 10 will coexist for a long time, and that both will be updated together, with each getting the features from the other that make sense. That Windows 10, over time, will become like a workstation OS for those legacy use cases, and that Modern OS is the way forward for the mainstream.

Or whatever. It just needs to communicate.

But with the Windows team split in two and scattered to the winds, with no voice for Windows on Microsoft’s senior leadership team, what we get instead is this backslide into the silence of the dark past. This isn’t healthy, for Microsoft, for Windows, or for those like us who still give a crap about this platform.

Microsoft, you’ve flubbed this one badly. It’s time to come clean.

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