Windows 10 is five years old this year. In ‘old world’ terms, it would be about time for a brand-new release around summer/autumn time but alas, this is no longer the case with the software-as-a-service model. With this year being such a milestone for Windows 10 and with the end of life of Windows 7 – Microsoft’s most popular OS in recent times, I thought it would be good to take a look back and review Windows 10’s progress these past few years.
I’m going to be a bit critical about a few things, but my criticisms are intended in the spirit of providing feedback and are only my opinion. My experiences and opinions won’t match others. I’m a long-time user and fan of Windows, as a consumer, enthusiast, and professional. During Windows 10’s lifetime there have been changes that no doubt have affected how the sausage and egg McMuffin that is Windows 10 is made (sorry, I’m really hungry). Not to mention all the feedback that MSFT are attempting to respond to, as well as developing Windows as a product in the direction that they want to as a corporation.
Let’s start with the positives!
Two releases, every year.
A positive of this release schedule is that Windows is updated, and new features are added quickly. In the old days, when a new standard or feature became common place in the tech world, sometimes it could be added with a service pack, but often it was added to the next major release of Windows and you either had to make do without it, or use software from a third party which wasn’t always integrated into the system well, if at all.
The 2019 updates.
After 2018 being a bit of a mess when it comes to the feature updates, I was glad to see that 2019 turned out much better. 1903 (19H1) introduced new features and 1909 (19H2) brought bug fixes and was otherwise a small and problem-free. There were no major bugs (like 1809’s file deletion bug) and if Microsoft can stay on this path, I’ll be happy as a consumer and an admin. I felt Microsoft had lost a lot of good will with Windows 10 updates in the past, but I think 2019 made up some ground. I hope it continues with the 2020 updates.
A more transparent development process.
With the Feedback app integrated into Windows 10, it’s easy to send feedback to Microsoft on any aspect of Windows and often see a response from the engineers. This is a huge change from old days where it was near impossible for normal users to send feedback to Microsoft. Also, with the Windows Insiders program it’s now easy to get work-in-progress builds of future releases and provide feedback on changes and new features that are being considered.
Windows 10 has been a huge step in updating Windows and keeping it relevant to the world today. Over the years new icons and new UI designs (have been created, and the daunting task of migrating the old control panel to a new, more modern settings area was started. I can’t fault them for trying new things and taking a few risks. A few examples of modern features that I use every day is the emoji keyboard, of all things! Along with other typing and keyboard improvements. This is another good example. Are these critical to the function of Windows? No, but it’s great to have them introduced. Another example is the development of the Your Phone app and linking your mobile phone to your Windows device. I love seeing this type of new feature, even though some I never use myself I can see how others would benefit. There are more new features than I’m giving credit for, so here’s a blog post from MSFT on some feedback-driven changes.
IT Pro resources.
There’s been a huge improvement in providing tools and documentation for IT pros in the last few years. Microsoft have been quietly working on building their docs pages, building new tools and supporting existing tools. Although Microsoft are focussed on the cloud, they’re at least still working to support hybrid and on premises configurations. “But for how long!?” I hear you say. True, but at least they’re not pulling an Apple and just saying “no”.
Now on to my less positive points.
During the lifetime of Windows 10 there have been a lot of work on updating and consolidating the Windows UI to a specific look and standard, but it has resulted in different areas of Windows and its in-box apps all looking different, almost stuck in various time capsules of this initiative as the UI design has been tweaked and changed along with the development of Windows, but independently. Windows has always had this problem to some extent, but with the increased speed of releases of Windows 10 it’s even more noticeable.
The Control Panel to Settings migration.
After five years this appears to still be in progress. Not much seems to have happened with the migration in the past year or so – perhaps there’s a problem blocking them from moving forward with it, but nevertheless there are still many control panel applets that haven’t been moved over and it only adds to the impression that the core of Windows 10 is unfinished. This is perhaps the second most common criticism. I would imagine that maintaining compatibility is something which affects this, but it’s also been five years. It’s another big factor in the impression that the modernisation is only skin deep; only updating the aspects that the common user sees.
Where in the world did Start Menu search performance go?
As of v1903 searching for programs using the Start Menu has returned to the same level of user experience as Windows 7 & 8.1. This is an extremely welcome change; however, it shouldn’t have taken this long to be fixed as the feedback on this problem has been around for years, and with Windows now being software as a service, it should have been fixed sooner. Arguably the problem shouldn’t have existed in the first place. My theory is that integrating Cortana into Windows 10 initially caused the problem and it’s only now been fixed because Cortana is being “refocused” and has been separated from the system search. If this is true, I think this is a negative effect of not being afraid to try new things; drastic changes are made to a perfectly functional feature of the operating system because a new product is being pushed. I would give credit for going all in and making a serious attempt to make Cortana successful, but it shouldn’t have made a core feature worse.
The new Power Toys are great, they add some very useful functionality, but these are the type of new features that should be added to Windows. According to Microsoft the Power Toys are for power users – which is great, but virtual desktops were added, and I would class this as a power user feature as well. So why are some power user features integrated into Windows and others only available via a separate download? Also, recently there’s been news that a future release of the Power Toys will have a new program launcher – Power Launcher, which again looks great. This type of new feature should be in a future Windows build though, also this would have been even better news if start menu search hadn’t just been fixed in 1903.
Over the years Windows 10 has introduced and improved on many apps included with it. Some intended to replace old apps and add new functionality and some entirely new apps. I’ve a few examples I want to examine.
Groove Music was an excellent new app that had a lot of development, a passionate community and the app improved with every new version. It supported Microsoft’s streaming music service, allowed you to play your own music from OneDrive cloud storage and was focussed and performant. Then Microsoft killed off its music service and stopped development, and with a final update removed the functionality to play music from OneDrive and added an advert for Spotify. You hate to see it. This seems like a huge waste of time and effort. What a shame.
On the flip side of the coin, Microsoft Photos is an app that I’m less positive about. In many ways it’s a great demo app to show off the then new features of UWP and demonstrate impressive animation and design, but fails as an everyday image viewing app, in the performance area. The performance when simply opening and displaying an image is not as good as the old Windows Photo Viewer or many third-party image viewers. The apps feature set appears to have been made to emulate Google’s long-dead Picasa photos application and although it has some good basic photo editing and video creation features, it seems like it should be an optional download or part of a “Windows 10 Plus Pack”, not the default image viewer for the OS.
One entirely new app was Paint 3D. It was and still is a decent application, but it’s relevance to the Windows ecosystem is unclear. At the point it was released Microsoft was promoting its Windows Mixed Reality devices and software. Since then Mixed Reality appears to have quietly disappeared, or perhaps it’s been merged with HoloLens? In any case it’s a good app, but I’m not sure why it exists.
Many of these new apps have obviously been created to modernise Windows and to replace old and out of date applications like Windows Photo Viewer and Windows Media Player. Quick side note, both these specific applications still work and can be enabled, but they’re a bit buggy and unsupported. I fully expect them to be entirely removed at some point.
App updates attached to OS updates.
The old Edge browser had its updates tied to the release of a new Windows version. Even with the accelerated update cadence of Windows 10, it makes no sense to create a new modern browser and tie its updates to the operating system updates. One of the advertised features of the new Chromium based Edge browser is that it is being updated separately from Windows. I’m glad we got there eventually.
A second example comes from Paul Thurrott who recently wrote about an update to the Calculator app that was released via an entire new Windows build in the Fast ring. The new feature was graphing, which is a welcome new feature for sure, but why is this update to the calculator application tied to an Insider build, shouldn’t it be pushed out through the store? The new Terminal isn’t tied to Windows releases and that’s a brand-new command line interface. If anything were to be tied to the OS, I would think that would be, not the calculator app. I understand that apps should be tested before being made generally available, but it is possible to push app updates out via the store only to specific rings and insider builds, because it’s been done before with the preview version of the Microsoft Photos app.
Wrapping it up.
My impression of Windows 10 as a project is that it feels directionless. It appears like different teams responding to feedback and corporate mandate, but with constantly changing goals, like weekly. New features are added to builds that are pushed to millions, only for the features to be abandoned soon afterwards and never developed or spoken of again.
I do think Windows 10 is a good operating system, every version has been an improvement over the previous one. Going back to Windows 7 now feels like going back in time in many ways. Professionally I didn’t consider Windows 10 good enough to begin broadly deploying until version 1607 and that was only because of the level of familiarity I had with the OS itself, the environment I worked in, and the users I worked with. My hope for 2020 is that Windows 10 development finds some kind of focus, maybe the 2019 updates where the beginning of it.
In the future I’d like to see there be a focus on shipping features of higher quality initially, rather than taking months to make them usable. The in-box apps and non-system additional utilities such as Calculator can be updated and delivered via the store, or their own update mechanisms in the case of Chromium Edge. It’d be great to see a leader focus on a direction to take Windows in future. I look at the Xbox division under Phil Spencer (I hate to single out one person, but he has turned it around in many ways since he’s been in the role) and I’d like to think that Windows and the ecosystem can be hugely improved if it had that kind of leadership. I look forward to seeing what Windows has in store for 2020 and beyond, there’s lots of good work being done all over Microsoft and it would be good to see it all come together.
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