Editor’s note: This article was originally published on September 16 but was updated September 29 with additional information.
Windows 9. Threshold. Or just plain Windows. Whatever Microsoft ends up calling its next operating system, it’s shaping up to be another big change from the Windows that came before it.
Only this time, Microsoft is looking to mollify its user base—especially in the enterprise—instead of scaring people away. If months of leaks and rumors are accurate, Microsoft will undo some of the most drastic changes in Windows 8, but it will also kick off a major transformation for Windows—one that’s long overdue.
Microsoft is likely to reveal at least some of these changes at a September 30 event. Here’s a look at all the details that have leaked out so far, and how we expect it all to come together:
Undoing the damage
The biggest changes in Windows 9 will be aimed at desktop users who never wanted the drastic design overhaul of Windows 8. That means desktop users will get their classic Start menu back, popping up in the bottom-left corner instead of taking over the entire screen as it does in Windows 8.
As a recent video leak showed, the order of this menu may be a bit different than it was in Windows 7. Folder shortcuts could move from the right side to the top, essentially switching places with where pinned apps used to be. By shuffling these shortcuts around, Microsoft leaves room for users to pin Live Tiles on the right side of the menu, where they can be resized and reordered in a grid view. (Users who prefer the full screen Start menu can still switch it on through Taskbar and Start menu Properties, the video revealed.)
Beyond the Start menu, Microsoft will likely de-emphasize the Charms bar and recent app switcher, both introduced in Windows 8. Many Charms bar functions—such as sharing and printing—will get folded directly into the menus of Windows Store apps, and the recent apps sidebar will give way to the classic desktop taskbar. Again, both features will remain available as options according to the latest leaks, but they won’t serve much purpose for desktop users.
An isolated convergence
Microsoft hasn’t entirely given up on its plan to have one Windows running across phones, tablets and PCs. But with Windows 9, Microsoft will likely tweak its original vision, with a separate smartphone and tablet version that emphasizes the modern interface and Windows Store apps.
It sounds like Windows RT all over again, but with some key differences: This version will run on smartphones as well as tablets, and may apply to both ARM-based and Intel Atom-based devices, according to ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley. Most importantly, this version may not include the desktop, potentially eliminating some of the confusion that made Windows RT a non-starter in the first place. If Microsoft can deliver a touch-friendly version of Office in tandem, it may finally deliver on the promise of simpler touch-based computing that RT never quite fulfilled.
The only question is what all this means for hybrid devices such as the Surface Pro 3 and Lenovo ThinkPad 10. This is just speculation, but it seems likely that Intel-based hybrids—especially larger models—will get the desktop-centric version of Windows with the option to enable some tablet-friendly features.
Redoing desktop software
It’s clear that Microsoft wants to create greater separation between lightweight touch devices and traditional PCs driven by mice, trackpads, and keyboards. But the glue holding them all together will be the Windows Store.
With Windows 8, Microsoft introduced the Windows Store to revamp software around tablets and touchscreens, but this effort didn’t go as planned. Between slow adoption of Windows tablets and minimal interest in modern apps from traditional PC users, the Windows Store quickly became ignored by major developers and overrun by junk. Microsoft just recently started cleaning up the mess.
Windows 9 will represent a second chance, as Microsoft makes a greater push for Windows Store apps on the desktop. Users will be able to run these apps in windowed or full screen modes, and they’ll have icons along the taskbar just like any other program. And unlike legacy desktop software, Windows Store apps can take advantage of new features such as the Share charm, Snap view, easier high-definition display support, and rich notifications. The store also provides a safe, centralized location where users can download and update their software.
Bringing Windows Store apps to the desktop introduces some challenges. Laptop and desktop users have different needs than phone and tablet users, and Microsoft may need to change the way it curates the store for each group. But if the huge base of traditional PC users takes a liking to these apps, it could make the store more vibrant for everyone, and finally help Windows software move into the modern era.
More bells and whistles, of course
If Windows 9 were only about damage control, it wouldn’t make a very compelling upgrade for satisfied Windows 7 users. So it’s no surprise that Microsoft is throwing in some new features to get their attention.
According to recent leaks, virtual desktops will be a major addition in Windows 9. Similar to the Workspaces feature in Ubuntu Linux, users will be able to spread their work across multiple desktops, freeing them from clutter when moving between tasks. Virtual desktops should be controlled through a window icon on the left side of the taskbar, so users can switch between workspaces with a couple of clicks.
Another leak claims Windows 9 will support 8K resolutions and feature better DPI scaling for high-res displays in general. Huzzah, if it’s true—Windows 8 improved on the operating system’s traditionally terrible handling of high-resolution displays, but it can still stand to get better.
Microsoft may also bring several features from Windows Phone over to the PC side, including the virtual assistant Cortana and a notification center that pops up from the right side of the desktop taskbar. Wi-Fi Sense and Storage Sense could also make the jump from Windows Phone, making it easier for users to get online and free up extra storage space.
Microsoft may introduce a more granular approach to individual program updates, as well, according to separate reports from Neowin and ZDNet. The reports say that various elements of Windows 9—such as Cortana and the Notification Center—will be more self-contained entities, allowing Microsoft to quickly push updates to individual parts of the operating system without having to tinker at the wider system level. It sounds similar to what Google is doing with Android’s Google Play Services.
A fresh start for “Windows”
So far, Microsoft hasn’t given a proper name to the next version of Windows. Its codename is reportedly “Threshold,” and “Windows 9” is merely a placeholder name that pundits and the press have been using.
But there’s a theory, pushed mainly by The Verge’s Tom Warren, that Microsoft will simply go with the name “Windows.” The idea is that Windows 9 isn’t just another upgrade, but the end of the Windows upgrade cycle as we know it. Instead of delivering major paid upgrades every two or three years, Microsoft could switch to a long lifespan of free updates, following the lead of iOS, Mac OS X, Android and Chrome OS. Microsoft’s Indonesian president recently reiterated that Windows 9 will be free for Windows 8 users, a message Microsoft first mentioned at its Build conference earlier in the year.
While switching to this model might make a small dent in Windows licensing revenue, it would prevent future XPocalypse-type situations, and create a less fragmented ecosystem for Microsoft to build from. ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley has even floated the possibility of free upgrades for Windows 7 users—an idea that makes a lot of sense in an era where free OS upgrades have become commonplace. The long-term health of the platform could be worth the short-term revenue loss.
With a new CEO and new mantra, it’s clear that Microsoft is looking to wipe the slate clean. Don’t be surprised if the name and the business model attempt to break Microsoft from its past, even as the product itself brings back much of what traditional PC users have been waiting for.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.