Windows 11 was, without a doubt, the biggest topic of 2021, with its surprise arrival, lack of testing, new UI, and a lot of missing features. Sadly, this release was also encumbered by a record level of miscommunication and misinformation from Microsoft. All these years later, the Windows teams still can’t get it right, in this case significantly harming what should have been a triumphant gift for its customers.
Heading into June 2021, we knew only that Microsoft was continuing to release very minor Windows 10 cumulative updates as feature updates and that the next such release, Windows 10 version 21H2, was expected to arrive around October, as usual, and with no interesting new features to speak of, as usual. Most were OK with this. Windows 10, after all, is a mature and stable platform, and Microsoft’s previous attempts at adding major new functionality, in particular during its ill-conceived “Creators” era, were met by most users with either disinterest or scorn.
For me, this was doubly fine: I have maintained a book called the Windows 10 Field Guide since November 2015, and I found it difficult to keep updated when too many things changed. And my plan at the beginning of June 2021 was to split the book into a new edition that would start with Windows 10 version 21H2, in part because of rumors of some big changes to come and in part because Microsoft had halted work on Windows 10X, which would have arrived with a new user interface and a compelling, component-based system architecture.
And then everything changed. In mid-June, the first Windows 11 build leaked ahead of Microsoft’s would-be surprise unveiling. As I had hoped and predicted when evaluating Windows 10X, it included the new UI from that system, no live tiles, and rounded window and UI element corners. An updated UI called Widgets replaced News and Information from Windows 10, but the Settings UI was the same as from Windows 10; as I noted then, I expected that to change, and it did.
Over time, I posted more screenshots of and observations about the leaked build, and I documented the clean install experience, which also featured a Windows 10X-style UI refresh. I even took it with me on a trip to Mexico City, really putting this unfinished platform to the test. And I addressed the elephant in the room: was Windows 11 just another example of Microsoft “putting lipstick on a pig?” No, I argued: the Windows 11 user experience wasn’t at all arbitrary but was instead an overdue attempt to make Windows more modern and streamlined. It was, as Microsoft argued, both “fresh and familiar.”
After almost two weeks of me and others testing the leaked build, Microsoft finally announced a Windows virtual event. And then it formally announced Windows 11, highlighting all of the features I had already uncovered, plus several new features I hadn’t seen. It discussed what’s new for developers, what’s new for hybrid work, what Windows 10 features were deprecated, and how anyone could get started testing Windows 11 for themselves.
I opined at this time that Windows 11 was, in many ways, the new Windows XP, in that it, too, is based on the foundation of its predecessor, and that it provides that fresh yet familiar new UI that really differentiates it. I didn’t—and don’t—believe that Windows 11 will have the same longevity as XP, in part because of historical reasons. And then I wrote this bit of nonsense.
“It’s a great time to be a Windows fan, and I haven’t been able to make that claim in several years.”
Perhaps I was just caught up in the excitement of Microsoft finally giving Windows some attention after years of neglect. But what I wasn’t seeing that day would be made obvious. And quickly.
First, Microsoft had miscommunicated—purposefully, I still believe—the onerous and arbitrary Windows 11 hardware requirements, which, among other things, included an 8th-generation Intel Core CPU (or equivalent) and a TPM 2.0 or newer security chipset. That latter requirement hit the headlines first, with users who had no issues running Windows 10 suddenly confronted by the fact that Windows 11, which was nearly identical, would not work. Microsoft issued a terrible tool called PC Health Check for testing your PC for compatibility, updated it, and then pulled it, but a third-party tool did a much better job at delivering the bad news. The Windows community was outraged.
To combat the growing controversies, Microsoft said that it would review the Windows 11 hardware requirements. And it did a bit of hand-waving by announcing an Office visual refresh that would mimic the Windows 11 look and feel and a 64-bit native version of Office for Windows on ARM. Was the WOA renaissance finally here? (No.)
To address the growing Windows 11 controversies, I examined what Microsoft communicated and when, and how that communication changed over time. It was pretty ugly: Microsoft specifically excluded information about 8th-generation Intel CPUs from its original press briefing and public documentation, but the TPM 2.0 requirement was always there in the latter. Windows 11 would be 64-bit only, which few people had issues with. And that 8th-generation Intel CPU thing? Completely arbitrary: there is no technical or security difference between these chipsets and their predecessors that could justify this requirement.
“Microsoft has yet to make a clear case for an 8th-generation Core minimum for Windows 11,” I wrote. “Microsoft … purposefully hid the [CPU] requirement from the press and the public, claiming only that 64-bit dual-core 1 GHz processor bit and so on. This wasn’t just ineptitude. It was malicious. And stupid.”
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Windows 11 would finally break with the Windows as a Service (WaaS) nonsense of the Windows 10 era, with Microsoft shipping just one feature update per year instead of two. And each Windows 11 Home, Pro, Pro for Workstations, and Pro Education feature update (e.g. “each version of Windows 11) will be supported for 24 months. Windows 11 Enterprise and Education feature updates will be supported for 36 months.
Over time, Microsoft issued new Windows 11 builds to Windows Insiders, and there were minor functional additions. But over time, we also noticed that few of the major new features that Microsoft had promised—like Android app compatibility—were appearing in these builds, and with an expected October release date quickly appearing on the horizon, we began to question how and when those features would arrive. As bad, it became obvious that none of the feedback that Insiders were providing would make it into the 1.0 version of the product. The testing cycle—July to September, basically—was just too short.
Microsoft, I argued, was plotting a potential disaster here. Because of the short testing timeframe and arbitrary October release date, many promised features would be missing, there would be lots of UI inconsistencies, and several important Windows 10 features would silently disappear, angering power users. But by the end of July, Windows 11 builds had come to the Beta channel of the Insider Program, indicating that development was nearly complete. From a functional standpoint, Microsoft was done.
But the controversies continued. I was among the first to document that the Default Apps interface in Windows 11 had been redesigned to thwart user choice and hinder competition. And Microsoft announced that, after a thorough review, its hardware requirements would stand as-is, with minor exceptions, one of them related to Surface PC. And Windows lead Panos Panay was elevated to be part of the Microsoft Senior Leadership Team.
By the end of August, we learned that Windows 11 would ship on October 5, missing features and functional regression be damned, and barely three months after it was first announced. To celebrate this milestone, Microsoft unceremoniously kicked users with non-compatible hardware out of the Windows Insider Program, and the Insider Dev Channel started testing post-1.0 builds of Windows 11 without first giving those users a chance to switch back to the stable channel. The Beta channel moved on to just testing bug fixes for 1.0.
In early September, I analyzed Microsoft’s performance claims for Windows 11 and concluded that Microsoft arbitrarily improved Windows 11 while leaving Windows 10 untouched to give the new system an unfair advantage. Third parties, including EdgeDeflector, Mozilla, and Brave, bypassed the terrible new Default Apps interface in Windows 11, setting up a bizarre showdown with Microsoft later. And when Microsoft discovered that Windows on ARM ran better on M1 Macs in virtualization than it did on real ARM PC hardware, it announced that it would not support WOA on M1 Macs.
By the end of September, Microsoft’s PC Health Check app was back, and it did a better job of telling people that their hardware was incompatible. And Windows 11 headed to Release Preview, one of the final milestones before the release.
And then I finally published a detailed list of all the features Microsoft had promised back in June but would not deliver in the initial release of Windows 11. It’s a long list that includes full-screen Widgets, the ability to rearrange and resize widgets, “Offer a tip,” streaming services support in the Microsoft Store, Adobe Creative Cloud and Document Cloud in the Microsoft Store, Android app support and the Amazon Appstore for Android, Mute/Unmute from the taskbar, and Taskbar Share.
More problems ensued. Mozilla Firefox was coming to the Microsoft Store, a win, but it would arrive without Mozilla’s bypass for Default Apps. AMD-based PCs suffered from a 3 to 15 percent performance hit after upgrading to Windows 11, a problem that wouldn’t fully be fixed until three weeks later. And worst of all, Microsoft’s ongoing inability to communicate effectively was causing even more issues. In one example, that Mute/Unmute feature, which Microsoft had touted as “universal” will only work with Microsoft Teams whenever it launches, and it will require developers of third-party communications apps like Zoom and Meet to modify their apps to support this feature.
By the end of October, Windows 11 was already on 5 percent of PCs out in the world. And in early November, Microsoft announced a new version of Windows 11, called Windows 11 SE, that will be optimized for low-end educational PCs like the Surface Laptop SE for Education.
And then the shit really hit the fan. In mid-November, Microsoft released an Insider build of Windows 11 that blocked third-party workarounds to the terrible Default Apps interface. And when it was asked about this, the software giant confirmed that this user-hostile change was purposeful. Even worse, it later implemented this change in the shipping, stable version of Windows 11 after less than a month of testing. Oh, Microsoft.
As we head into 2022, one of the biggest questions about Windows 11 is how and when the software giant will update this system with new, promised, but undelivered features, fixes for functional regressions, and other changes. I had always believed that Microsoft could update Windows 11 at any time, and that it would do so via its monthly cumulative updates. And in early December, Microsoft added some language to an Insider blog post that I still believe confirmed this. But it’s still unclear how frequently we will see these updates, and when the first will arrive.
And that’s where we’re at. Windows 11 is a pretty, modern-looking visual refresh to Windows 10, but it is also missing many of the features Microsoft promised in June and it is still saddled with those functional regressions from Windows 10. We’re still waiting for clarity from Microsoft on the future, and given the history, it’s probably unreasonable to expect that to ever change.
But despite these negatives, I still like Windows 11, and I still recommend it to mainstream users, most of whom aren’t aware of the promises and won’t miss the features missing from Windows 10. Power users may feel differently, based in part on the feedback I get via email and Twitter, and I get that. But assuming Microsoft does issue functional updates ahead of Windows 11 first feature update, 2022 should be a much better year for Microsoft’s flagship client platform. And that’s something to look forward to as we move into the New Year.