On the fifth anniversary of Windows 10, we look back at what it was supposed to be and what it ultimately became. Almost nothing turned out as planned, and that’s OK.
Ed Bott brings the state of Windows 10 up to date at ZDNet with: Windows 10 turns five: Don’t get too comfortable, the rules will change again.
I celebrated the occasion by upgrading a small data centre’s worth of Windows 10 devices to the new build and monitoring for glitches. This year, the process was refreshingly uneventful and almost shockingly fast. On newer PCs, almost everything happened in the background, and the wait after the final reboot was typically five minutes or less.
Five minutes seems incredible. There were early iterations of Windows 10 where you might need to set aside the best part of the day for an upgrade.
That was for the essential pre-upgrade back-up along with an hour or so for the upgrade itself. On top of that was time needed to familiarise yourself with the new reality.
Often things would go missing. In some cases key features would be dropped or change beyond recognition.
One lesson at that time was to never automate or customise Windows 10 because you’d never know if an update would break everything.
There were also times when an automatic upgrade might happen without warning and you’d wake up in unfamiliar territory.
It’s not clear to me how long it took Microsoft to get Windows 10 to the point where upgrading stopped being a risky venture.
Microsoft’s cunning plan
Back in 2015, Microsoft’s vision for Windows 10 was expansive. It would run on a dizzying assortment of devices: smartphones running Windows Mobile, small tablets like the 8-inch Dell Venue 8 Pro 5000 series, PCs in traditional and shape-shifting configurations, Xbox consoles, the gargantuan conference-room-sized Surface Hub, and the HoloLens virtual reality headset.
In 2020, that vision has been scaled back. Windows 10 Mobile is officially defunct, and small Windows 10 tablets have completely disappeared from the market. Of all those chips scattered across the craps table, only the 2-in-1 Windows device category appears to have paid off.
There was a time when Windows Mobile, or Windows Phone as it was called, beat the pants off Android and gave iOS a run for its money. Windows Phone 7 was great. It integrated neatly with everything else Windows and Office. For a while the Windows desktop and mobile combination was the most productive option.
Microsoft, being Microsoft, couldn’t resist tinkering with great, making life more complicated. Let’s face it, too complicated.
Windows Phone 8 may have had better features, but it was already on the path to clumsy and cluttered. From that point things kept getting worse.
Of course the real killer was that mighty Microsoft, once the world’s largest company and still among the biggest, couldn’t assemble a credible suite of phone apps.
Microsoft would have done better spending more of its capital seeding phone app developers than on other failed investments. Or maybe it was always a lost cause. It doesn’t matter because a reinvented Microsoft went on to greater things with Azure and enterprise products and services.
There are times when 2-in-1 Windows devices sparkle and shine, but for the most part non-Surface Windows PC hardware feels almost held back by Microsoft.
HP, Dell and others give every appearance of being capable of making great hardware. Yet they never quite reach the lofty heights. Ever so often something special appears, but you have to move fast and buy it at the time because the good stuff never gains traction.
Likewise Microsoft’s own-brand Surface products don’t always hit the target. There have been missed. Yet on the whole the Surface experience is fine even if product reliability isn’t up to scratch. And if you want to spend that much money, Apple can look relatively inexpensive by comparison.
On conspiracy theories
And then there were the dark scenarios that Microsoft skeptics spun out around the time of Windows 10’s debut.
The free upgrade offer was a trap, they insisted. After Microsoft had lured in a few hundred million suckers with that offer, they were going to start charging for subscriptions. Five years later, that still hasn’t happened. If Microsoft is running some sort of hustle here, it’s a very long con.
There’s more conspiracy coverage in the original story. As Bott says, it is all nonsense. The conspiracy theories looked daft at the time. They showed a lack of understanding about Microsoft’s direction and where Windows 10 fits in the big picture.
Windows 10 did the job it needed to do
As Bott puts it:
Despite the occasional twists and turns that Windows 10 has taken in the past five years, it has accomplished its two overarching goals.
First, it erased the memory of Windows 8 and its confusing interface. For the overwhelming majority of Microsoft’s customers who decided to skip Windows 8 and stick with Windows 7, the transition was reasonably smooth. Even the naming decision, to skip Windows 9 and go straight to 10 was, in hindsight, pretty smart.
Second, it offered an upgrade path to customers who were still deploying Windows 7 in businesses. That alternative became extremely important when we zoomed past the official end-of-support date for Windows 7 in January 2020.
It’s taken Microsoft eight years to recover from Windows 8. In some ways it still hasn’t fully recovered. It may never recover. Windows 8 was the point where Microsoft no longer dominated.
Yes, things happened elsewhere. There was a switch from PCs to phones. But the key point is that when Microsoft faced the first serious competition to its dominance, it released a terrible operating system. Or at least the wrong operating system to meet the challenge.
Windows 10 didn’t halt Microsoft’s OS decline
If anything Windows 8 accelerated Microsoft’s OS decline.
Stockholm syndrome means that many Windows fans couldn’t see how awful Windows 8 was. Switching from 7 to 8 was a horrible experience. People who could put off those upgrades and stayed with 7. Today about 20 percent of all OS users still have Windows 7, an operating system that is well past its sell by date. Microsoft no longer supports 7.
Other users switched to Apple, Linux or even ChromeOS. And there was a huge switch away from computers to phones.
Before Windows 8 Microsoft’s OS market share was around 90 percent. Today it is about 35 percent and comes in behind Android. Apple is about 8.5 percent.
Windows 10 offers a credible path for Windows 7 users. The fact that so many users, especially enterprise users, have stuck with 7 tells you how bad things were for Microsoft.
To a degree Microsoft has lost interest in Windows. It no longer makes rivers of gold from the operating system. At least not directly. It remains important as a gateway for business users to move to the company’s Azure cloud services. But the days when Windows called the shots are over.