The first step toward solving a problem is admitting that you have one. After two years of disappointing Windows 8 adoption and plenty of negative feedback about its Modern UI, Microsoft has finally acknowledged its mistakes and submitted to a higher power: its users. The company is making amends with Windows 10, which brings back the Start menu and puts the desktop front and center again. Though critics might see the new OS as nothing more than a return to normalcy, Windows 10 shows that Microsoft is serious about delivering on the promise of a universal operating system that runs equally well on all devices.
Like any bad sequel, Windows 8 has undermined the qualities that made its predecessors a success. Traditionally, Windows was known for its nearly infinite flexibility and multitasking prowess. Business and home users alike were able to be productive with the Start menu and the desktop UI, because they could put so much information on the screen at once.
However, with Android and iOS winning on tablets and phones, Microsoft needed to show the world that it could play in mobile. But rather than simply offering a touch-friendly interface to users that needed one, it tried to force-feed billions of people a completely new, productivity-unfriendly interface. Windows 7 users who don't like Aero can make their desktops look like Windows XP, but Windows 8 users who want the Start menu back have to turn to a third-party utility.
Even worse, Windows 8 created a new class of software — so-called Windows Store apps — that runs only in its Modern UI, while other applications run only in windowson the desktop. Talk about confusion!
With Windows 10, Microsoft is giving the power back to the people. Though the company is doing away with the Start screen and bringing back the Start menu, it is also working on a touch-friendly Start mode that will provide larger icons for users who want those features.
During a press event, Corporate Vice President of Operating Systems Joe Belfiore showed how a 2-in-1 device like the Lenovo Yoga would change between touch and desktop UIs as users change the system from tablet to laptop mode. The modes should also be user-configurable — so, even if I want to get the Start menu on a 7-inch tablet, I can.
More importantly, individual apps themselves will adapt, changing their menus to be more mouse- or finger-friendly, depending on the mode. With these new Universal apps, developers will no longer need to build separate versions of their programs for Windows tablets, Windows PCs and Windows Phones. Even 4-inch handsets will run the new operating system and programs, though presumably with a different UI.
We don't know yet whether Universal apps will have all the functionality of traditional desktop apps or be hobbled by the limitations that hold back today's Modern UI apps. While traditional desktop apps can run in the background and control other apps, Modern apps aren't allowed to do things like take screenshots, scan other programs for viruses or run macros in them. Belfiore said that Universal apps would be sandboxed, but hopefully, there will be some provision for utilities.
While Google and Apple continue to offer completely different operating systems for desktop and mobile devices, Microsoft has a uniquely compelling strategy: one OS to rule them all. However, this strategy will only work if users and developers have the power to control the experience.