Windows 10X – tell me this isn’t just a huge mess

Panos Panay Surface Neo
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Email Twitter: @kipkniskern Jul 20th, 2020 inFeature Stories | Opinion

Reports coming out earlier today have shed new light on the progress and direction of Microsoft’s as yet unreleased “Lite” operating system, Windows 10X. If you remember, the earliest reports of this slimmed down and modern version of Windows 10 started surfacing back in late 2018. While details were scarce, and Microsoft didn’t officially acknowledge Windows 10X until almost a year later with the unveiling of Surface Neo, it’s clear that Windows 10X has already undergone a number of changes of direction before today’s revelations.

First, Windows 10X was thought to be a new “lite” version of Windows, and the way forward for Windows as a whole. Then, it morphed, through news accounts at least, into a “Chromebook killer,” an operating system for low powered, Edu focused devices meant to slow the steamroller that ChromeOS and Chromebooks are becoming in education markets.

At the same time, Microsoft’s hardware counterparts for Windows 10X, Surface Neo (the Courier like dual screen tablet), and the Duo (don’t call it a phone, but it’s a dual screen phone), have undergone direction changes as well. While never officially announced, Duo was at first planned to be a Windows 10X device, too, but when it was officially announced in October 2019, Microsoft made headlines by unveiling it as an Android device. Whether the company couldn’t get Windows 10X to reliably work, or whether they just didn’t want to fight the app battle they lost so badly with Windows Phone all over again, pulling Duo out of the Windows 10X stable meant more changes in direction for the as yet unreleased but already troubled operating system.

Instead of a range of devices (including promised 3rd party OEM devices) all running Windows 10X and leading Microsoft into a new age of lighter and more versatile devices, suddenly the company was hedging its bets, and shifting some of the chips on the table to Android.

With the official announcement of Windows 10X and the Surface Neo, Windows 10X almost inexplicably became the operating system for dual screen devices, making no sense to anyone except perhaps dual screen device marketers. That only lasted until this May, when newly appointed Chief Product Officer for Windows + Devices Panos Panay announced that instead, Windows 10X was to focus on single screen devices that “leverage the power of the cloud… in new ways.”

Now, Windows 10X, instead of coming out this holiday season with the release of Neo, won’t be here until the first half of 2021 at the earliest, and then without Win32 support. Microsoft had been trying to get Win32 apps to run in containers, but according to today’s reports that effort has been shelved for now, and if legacy Windows applications are to run at all in Windows 10X, it will be via an Azure powered Cloud PC service, also slated to release in early 2021. Containerized legacy app support is not now expected until 2022, according to the reports.

Many of us think of Win32 apps as being Photoshop or Office, and maybe a lite device doesn’t really need to run such heavy handed apps, anyway. The problem expands, however, in the enterprise, where legacy Win32 apps, many written years ago and explicitly for internal corporate use, power businesses. There is no return on investment for rewriting these apps, either as web apps (with all of the associated security issues), or even as hosted apps in a Cloud PC service, adding complexity and hosting costs to applications and services that businesses now run for free, having long paid them off. For businesses to embrace Windows 10X, they’ll face a real choice: either bite the bullet and start paying anew for their internal line of business applications, or pass on this “next big thing.”

For businesses to embrace Windows 10X, they’ll face a real choice: either bite the bullet and start paying anew for their internal line of business applications, or pass on this “next big thing.” In one of his Premium posts, Paul Thurrott argues that as long as customers are using Windows apps, even if they’re hosted on Azure and a Cloud PC service, it doesn’t really matter if they ultimately run on a Windows 10X PC or a Chromebook. The problem with this thinking, of course, is if and when enterprises do rewrite apps, or create new ones, there’s nothing to hold them to Win32 or Azure, and in fact there’s much to actually push them away. Running legacy apps in the cloud on Azure is one thing, but running next gen apps written in open source code on AWS on a Chromebook is quite another. If Win32 apps not only don’t run better and are more full-featured (as they do now with Windows 10 running native applications) than web apps, but actually run worse, what’s the point?

Likewise, Google has made significant inroads into the other lucrative market for lite and versatile devices, education. What will Windows 10X offer schools that Google doesn’t already offer with Chrome and Chromebooks? The apps that schools use are going to be web apps written for Chrome, and it’s fine that those apps can run as well on Edge, but is that really a selling point? “We’re almost as good as the other guy, for not much more $$” has never been a winning marketing strategy.

So what are we left with? A new fresh UI that will reportedly be making its way to Windows 10 proper anyway, a break from legacy Win32 apps, one that Microsoft’s biggest customers probably don’t really want, a bet-hedging play into phone/mobile devices where “we might champion Windows 10X but then again screw it maybe we’ll just use Android,” an already fractured device ecosystem where some, but not all dual screen devices will run 10X, and oh right, we’re concentrating on single screen devices anyway.

Not to mention a half hearted attempt to jump into the dual screen hardware arena, with a purported launch of a Duo with 2 year old specs and a mediocre camera, trying to carve out a niche in between a phone and a laptop where most people are fine with just carrying both (and Duo not really meeting the needs of either).

Microsoft already tried to slim down Windows and pull away from legacy Win32 with Windows 10 S, and we all know how that went. Windows 10X doesn’t seem to be much more than a new coat of paint on Windows 10 S, a crippled OS built for we’re not sure who, coming once again late and lame to the party. We’d love to be proven wrong, but at this point, all signs point to Windows 10X becoming not much more than Windows 10S+, and that’s not good.

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