Is Windows 11 upon us? Two days ago, Microsoft announced a June 24th event to unveil "what's next for Windows." So far, we don't know much more than that, but of course there's rampant speculation. Let's take a look at what we know so far and what we might hear on the 24th. First, some quick history:
News of a "new version" of Windows first started filtering out with leaks about something called Windows 10X: a lightweight, refreshed version of Windows first slated for the Surface Duo and the unreleased Surface Neo. Windows 10X was at first going to be limited to dual screens only. Continuing problems getting Windows to run reliably (meaning with full Win32 app support) on ARM chips, something necessary for a smartphone like the Duo, changed those plans, and Microsoft announced that Windows 10X would first come out for single screens only, that Duo would run Android instead (?!), and the Neo just faded away.
Windows 10X, even on single screens was never meant to be a "replacement" for Windows 10: it was going to come out on new hardware only, and be positioned to compete with Chromebooks in Edu (just a note here: Chromebooks are doing *very* well in Edu, and while it's not a huge market, losing those young hearts and minds to Google has been and continues to be a concern for Microsoft).
But as it turns out, Windows 10X was not to be. Microsoft apparently reversed course, announcing that there would be no 10X launch, and that instead many of the mostly UI and UX features would be instead incorporated into Windows itself.
Windows 10 "Sun Valley," the code name for the 21H2 version of Windows, would serve as the revisioning of Windows 10X, with new icons, a new Start menu, and a more consistent UI.
So that leaves us with the announcement yesterday. As usual, there are a lot more questions than answers. Let's dive in:
1. What's in a name?
Much has been made of the "Windows 11" shadow in yesterday's teaser GIF, and it's obvious to call "the next version of Windows" Windows 11. Others are leaning toward just calling it "Windows." And of course, even with all the speculation, we still could end up with some variant of "Windows 10." It was supposed to be the last version of Windows, right? (Still, it was only one guy at a session at Ignite 2015 who said "last version").
— Panos Panay (@panos_panay) June 2, 2021
2. Something completely different?
The hints are coming hot and heavy that we're in for "a new generation of Windows," but how much change should we expect? A job listing spotted last week promises "a multi-year journey to revolutionize the Windows UX platform,” and while Microsoft is making a big deal about this June 24th announcement, it seems far fetched to think we'll have a completely new and different Windows in the 21H2 timeframe (read: this Fall). Everything we've heard so far about Sun Valley is that while it carries a new, refreshed look, it's still very much Windows 10 under the hood.
Sun Valley should hit the high points, with a fresh clean look born out of Windows 10X, but can we really expect a fully cohesive UI/UX makeover? This has the earmarks of a "multi-year journey," indeed.
3. What about the enterprise?
Microsoft has long held to a mantra of staying true to legacy Windows, and there's good reason for that. Enterprise generally hates change, because there's real financial pain involved in having to rework training materials, help desks, and IT management to accommodate changes in Windows.
As consumers, we all want the latest, freshest look, but that's exactly what enterprise *doesn't* want.
4. A new path, or a fork in the road?
On their regular Windows Weekly podcast this week, Mary Jo Foley and Paul Thurrott had lots to say about the just released news of an upcoming June 24th announcement. In particular, though, one thing Mary Jo said stood out: After saying that "this is going to be a lot of smoke and mirrors, plus a new store," she also said (while noting that she was just guessing, with no insider knowledge) that she's expecting to see 21H2 *plus* a new Windows "11" this fall. Her reasoning is that enterprise doesn't care about any of this UI stuff (see above), and will want to stick with Windows 10.
A French blog, Frandroid, posted a screenshot of what it says is the Windows 11 System menu, and also postulates that there will be two versions, but it's only guesswork at this point. Since we know Insiders will get to test this new version (see #8 below), one possibility is that it ships with new devices (see #6), but that it's also available to "seekers," as an opt in, with everyone else remaining on Windows 10.
5. Is a Feature Experience Pack the answer?
Of course Daniel Rubino and Zac Bowden were also talking Windows "11," and on their new "Ask Windows Central" feature, Zac Bowden noted that while technically the current Windows Insider Dev Channel is gearing up toward Sun Valley, Microsoft is trying hard to keep the new UX features a "secret." These features, Bowden says, could come as part of a Windows Feature Experience Pack, allowing the company to keep the new stuff under wraps for as long as possible.
What this also might mean, however, is that the Sun Valley / Windows 10X / Windows 11 features that Insiders and consumers are clamoring for, but that enterprise is almost sure to hate, could come as part of a modular Windows. Want the latest and greatest? Install this Feature Experience Pack and here you go. Need to go stuffed shirt to keep your enterprise IT department happy? Just don't install the Pack (or indeed, install an Enterprise Features Pack perhaps, making the core of Windows less bloated).
— Aggiornamenti Lumia (@ALumia_Italia) June 1, 2021
6. Can Windows "11" sell?
One thing almost everyone agrees on: a new naming scheme for Windows is going to be a boon for OEMs trying to sell new devices. OEMs are going to love being able to put "New: Windows 11!!!" (or whatever) on their marketing and packaging, and with PC sales enjoying a pandemic fueled resurgence, having something new and shiny to sell is going to make OEMs *very* happy.
7. Will Sun Valley turn Teams integration up to 11?
Mary Jo Foley mentioned that Microsoft had told Bloomberg a bit more about what to expect on June 24th. Here's the quote: "The new software will include changes to the design, added opportunities for creators and developers via the Windows app store, and ways to more easily build connections between users and communities they care about, the company said." (Italics ours). This sounded to Mary Jo, Thurrott and Leo Laporte like Teams built into Windows, and we have to agree, although like everything else, we'll have to wait until the 24th to find out.
8. Will Windows Insiders get to test the new Windows? And when?
Again, Microsoft provided Bloomberg with some hints, saying "The software will be rolled out to so-called Windows Insiders who sign up to test new products after the event, and is likely to be released widely this fall." Whether this means that Insiders will be able to test a potential new "Windows 11" channel, or just that some new features will start showing up in Dev channel builds, we're not sure. Anyway, be prepared to mash some refresh buttons if Microsoft does open up "Windows 11" to new testing. Fair warning.
9. (just like Windows, we skipped 9 😉 )
10. Oh and one more thing, what's this about a new Store?
What Satya Nadella really said in his one minute mention of "the next generation of Windows" at Build was this: "And soon, we will share one of the most significant updates to Windows of the past decade to unlock greater economic opportunity for developers and creators."
Sure, you can read this as "one of the most significant updates to Windows of the past decade," but it sure sounds like Nadella was talking specifically about changes coming to the Microsoft Store. Back in April, Microsoft announced that it was dropping its cut on game sales in the Store from 30% to just 12%, and more information has surfaced about changes coming to the Store, far more than just a Sun Valley UI refresh. According to Zac Bowden, the new store will:
- Allow developers to submit unpackaged Win32 apps to the Store
- Allow developers to host apps and updates on their own content delivery network (CDN)
- Allow developers to use third-party commerce platforms in apps
Now Microsoft has tried to reinvent the Store model before, most notably with Windows Phone, and we know how that went. It has also tried recently to push, without much success, PWAs as a way to break through the walled gardens of the Apple and Google Play stores. Even without a new selling model, however, the Microsoft Store is in desperate need of a revamp, so this can only come as good news.
We can't wait until June 24th (or whenever the leaks start showing up before then) to find out what all the commotion is about. What do you think will happen? Is the next generation of Windows "Windows 11," or something else entirely? Let us know what you're expecting in the comments below.