According to reports, Microsoft is even more explicitly pushing its upcoming Windows 10X as a competitor for Chromebooks and Chrome OS, retooling it to eliminate support for legacy code. Microsoft also plans a “Cloud PC” running apps from the cloud, they say. All this will have significant effects on Windows 10, which may slow its development cycle even more.
Microsoft began showing off Windows 10X earlier this year, and positioned it as a specific flavor of Windows 10 optimized for a new wave of dual-screen Windows 10 devices. But then the pandemic hit, and Microsoft began rethinking its plans. Now, Microsoft’s roadmap and positioning of Windows 10X versus Windows 10 and even Windows 10 S are becoming clearer.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Nothing happens until 2021
The reports seem to agree that little is happening until 2021. ZDNet’s Zac Bowden reports that Windows 10X will be finished up in late 2020 and debut on a dedicated Microsoft device, such as a Surface Go 3. ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley reports that Windows 10X will be released for single-screen devices beginning in 2021, and for dual-screen devices in 2022. We’ve known previously that Microsoft’s Surface Neo was “paused” as Microsoft reassessed the dual-screen device landscape.
Also on the horizon: ZDNet is reporting that in spring 2021, Microsoft will add something new: a “Cloud PC,” primarily aimed at businesses. More on this in a bit.
2. Windows 10X’s big change
The other big piece of news is that Windows 10X is reportedly dropping one of its coolest pieces of technology: the “container” that would have allowed it to run Win32 apps in a virtualized mode. Windows 10X was noteworthy for its streamlined design that was originally optimized for dual-screen PCs. Under the hood, however, Windows 10X apparently shared a lot of the design goals with Windows 10 S: provide a managed environment for running trusted apps from the Microsoft Store natively, and use a sandboxed “container” to support the vast ecosystem of legacy Win32 apps.
With Microsoft’s recent decision, however, Windows 10X will run Universal Windows Platform (UWP) and web apps only—drastically restricting its appeal to mainstream users. On the other hand, you’ll still be able to run apps like Spotify, as long as they can run inside a Web page or a UWP app like Twitter. This could all change in 2022, when Microsoft may revisit the container model, ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley reports. But that’s the plan of record for now.
3. Fewer features for Windows 10, potentially
Microsoft has a finite number of developers, and the split between Windows 10X, Windows 10, and (apparently) the Windows Cloud PC means that Microsoft plans to formalize a practice that has already become habit: new Windows 10 features will be released in the fall, while new Windows 10X features will be prioritized for the spring, ZDnet reports. For Windows 10 users, this would swap the current release schedule, where more substantive features are delivered in the spring, and the fall is dedicated to patching and updating older code.
Microsoft has pursued this sort of “feature, then patch” release strategy since 2019. As of now, there are few new features that have been publicly committed to the upcoming Windows 10 Slow/Beta Channel of Windows Insider releases for 20H2, due sometime this fall. (Microsoft also now has a separate Dev Channel, where it tests upcoming code with no specific release date or build attached.)
If you’re a fan of new Windows features, you’ll probably be disappointed. Those who would prefer Windows move slowly and emphasize patching and overall stability, however, will be more enthusiastic.
4. Windows 10X looks even more like a Chromebook competitor
While the vast majority of consumer and enthusiast PC runs Windows 10, that’s not the same for Chromebooks, which quietly replaced Apple iPads and Macs in American classrooms several years ago. Businesses, too, need low-cost PCs for so-called “front-line workers,” without all of the overhead that can accompany Windows PCs. It sounds like Windows 10X may be the solution for the first group, with Cloud PCs answering the needs of businesses, as well as some overlap between the two.
“Originally planned as an OS for flagship premium PCs in the foldable space, Windows 10X will now be launching at the very other end of the spectrum, on low-cost tablets and laptops designed for the education and enterprise markets,” Windows Central writes.
Without the Win32 container technology, positioning Windows 10X at the low end of the market was almost a foregone conclusion. But Windows Central reported that it was difficult if not impossible to get Windows 10X to run containerized/virtualized apps on low-end hardware, forcing Microsoft to strip out that technology and reposition Windows 10X as a low-end OS. That limitation may have forced Microsoft’s hand.
5. Cloud PCs: Windows as a service is here
We’ve written before how virtualization could be the key to many of Microsoft’s future directions, including adapting the App-V model of streamed apps. Microsoft’s upcoming “Cloud PC” could be the answer to that. While the concept isn’t really anything new—thin clients have existed for years, with apps sent down from the cloud for users to interact with locally—this is Microsoft’s latest swing at the idea.
Remember, businesses want a simplified, managed computing environment that they can just deploy and forget, and are willing to pay for. Both Windows Central and ZDNet seem to agree that Microsoft will use its Windows Virtual Desktop as a platform to allow businesses to run remote apps stored in the cloud.
We also have the most solid proof that a “Cloud PC” exists—because, as ZDNet noted, Microsoft’s hiring for it.
”Microsoft’s vision of Cloud PC is that it is the only M365 [Microsoft 365] powered user compute experience delivered from azure and managed by Microsoft—at a flat per user price,” the job posting says. “Microsoft Cloud PC is a strategic, new offering that is built on top of Windows Virtual Desktop to delivering Desktop as a Service. At its core, Cloud PC provides business customers a modern, elastic, cloud-based Windows experience and will allow organizations to stay current in a more simplistic and scalable manner.”
Can we imagine that you’ll be playing the latest Call of Duty streamed from the cloud? Of course not—and, well, yes. PCs are built on apps stored on a user’s hard drive, but the Xbox and Project xCloud stream games from the cloud—and they’re a reality. It’s very possible that this weird mashup of local and remote apps, virtualization, and subscriptions will continue.
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As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.