What does Windows 10 mean for the future of Windows?

Microsoft will release its Windows 10 operating system to its users as a free upgrade on Wednesday. The company says this will be the last operating system it releases.

Mike Segar/Reuters
An electronic Microsoft logo is seen at the Microsoft store in New York City, July 28, 2015. The global launch of company's Windows 10 operating system will take place July 29.

Windows 10 will arrive on Wednesday as a free upgrade to anyone running the latest versions of Windows 7 or 8. It will also be the last release of Microsoft Windows as the company switches to a constant-software-update model instead of the every-other-year massive release that the company has done for more than a decade.

And though the question of features and specifics can be asked – how is the new Edge browser (Internet Explorer’s successor) and will Windows 10 have Minesweeper (it will) – there is more to this update in what it says about not just the user’s experience of Windows in the future, but also the company’s view of what’s long been its flagship product.

Namely, that flexibility is what the future of personal computing looks like to Microsoft.

Microsoft is not oblivious. It knows what it is and what it isn’t. And if there’s anything it’s been asserting over the past few years, it‘s that it’s crucially aware of where it falls on the tech giant spectrum. So when the advertising campaign promotes that users of Windows 10 will be able to “do things” it’s entirely in line with what Microsoft knows its Windows users want, and what it wants itself to be.

Time and time and time again, Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella has asserted that what makes Microsoft different from its competitors is that it enables its users to build things and collaborate. Namely, that while Apple has gadgets, Google has search, and Amazon has storage, Microsoft has products that are more-or-less blank slates with the capability to build on top of them: Office, Azure, and Windows itself. That’s been the rebranding that Microsoft has been pushing under Mr. Nadella for the past two years, and that’s where Windows 10 holds and asserts itself.

With Windows 10, Microsoft has done something very interesting, but not necessarily very new. The company has been trying to get its operating system on tablets for quite some time. In 2001, it released its first tablet PC, which did not catch on as popularly as the tablets of the following decade in part due to its operating system. Many felt that the tablet did not distinguish its usefulness, and instead was bloated and difficult to use. Essentially, it was a mobile device running a desktop operating system. With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft tried bundling mobile and desktop functionality into the same operating system. Many keyboard-and-mouse users found that difficult to use. For its new operating system, the company has learned from its mistakes and built Windows 10 to match its users accordingly.

The company essentially built Windows 10 into two interfaces: one for keyboard and mouse and one for hand or stylus. The user can switch between them with ease by swiping right on the screen or opening up the notifications side menu, and the screen will rearrange itself depending on what the company thinks works best for that platform (larger icons and full screen applications for tablet view or a more conventional desktop view).

And if a year from now its users say it doesn’t work as well as advertised, the company will release a software update that replaces the features with something (hopefully) better.

This mirrors the push toward flexibility and standardization, and a break from the previous exclusivity of many Microsoft products in the past. Office is available on several types of mobile, tablet, and desktop operating systems, and Microsoft is even allowing users to develop Android and iOS apps for its devices.

But Microsoft isn’t the only company operating like this. Apple is releasing its Apple Music software across multiple platforms, and there’s a push to standardize what remains of Windows Phone to support non-Windows apps. In essence, the software giants aren’t competing anymore to decide what is or what wins; they’ve decided on what works and are working on moving that thing forward.

So should you upgrade to Windows 10? The answer is an firm (albeit eventual) yes. You may not want to update right away, as the initial release will surely contain bugs and compatibility issues. In order to alleviate this problem, the company is actually rolling out Windows 10 in waves so that it can fix errors before the next batch. However, Microsoft is using this platform as a way to standardize all future products, so the upgrade may be unavoidable. It’s certainly a new direction, but The Verge notes that it does combine the most-beloved features of Windows 7 and 8, and also adds an additional few that we’ve become used to in our other devices. For example, Cortana adds some nice search features as a digital personal assistant.

Windows 10 is geared toward being a universal hub for Microsoft products (including Xbox), so some of its features might not be ideal for everyone, or able to be installed on your device. For the user who does little more than browse Internet Explorer or edit Office docs, Windows 7 and 8 updates will still be supported for some time.

But Microsoft is moving in a vastly different direction, and so far, it looks like it will work in the company’s favor.

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