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Microsoft Windows’ future is all about users

We look at how Microsoft is evolving the Windows desktop operating system platform and providing developer flexibility

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Where next for Windows?

Microsoft’s financials tell an interesting story. While Azure continues to grow, along with its cloud revenues, it’s still, at heart, the Windows and Office company. The product names and the business models may have changed, but those stalwarts are still the foundation of everything from Redmond.

Office might now be the Microsoft 365 subscription service and Windows, both desktop and server, now a series of bi-annual rolling releases instead of a big bang every three years or so, but they’re still Office and Windows.

Following on from Microsoft’s 2020 Build, Inspire and Ignite events, it’s worth taking a look at the shape of the Windows platform and the direction the desktop operating system is taking, especially for its more than one billion users around the world.

While the world is very much moving to the cloud these days, cloud applications still need PCs and phones through which to deliver their services to users, and even with the dominance of smartphones, many of these users will be on Windows.

The shape of Windows to come

Microsoft looks set to deliver not one, but two major updates to Windows in 2021. The first, Windows 10X, is a new, lighter-weight version of Windows for new hardware, while the second is a long-awaited user interface refresh of Windows 10, with user interface elements already being tested out on Xbox.

Windows 10X was initially announced for the now delayed dual-screen Surface Neo. Part of a long-term project to separate the Windows user experience from the underlying operating system – with one version already powering HoloLens 2 and another slated for a future Surface Hub update – it is now intended for lower-cost PCs that should rival Google’s Chromebooks. With a focus on Windows Store apps and progressive web apps (PWAs), it is likely to be targeted at education and at home users rather than the office.

With a radically different user experience, more akin to a tablet, and running on lower-cost hardware, Windows 10X should drive adoption of Microsoft’s MSIX application packaging technology. Designed to work with both Win32 and WinRT software developer kits (SDKs), MSIX allows customisations to be separated from applications, giving enterprises the ability to quickly preconfigure applications while supporting modern, rapid-update technologies. Each new build that ships can be paired with a ready-made set of customisations, speeding up enterprise deployments and ensuring workers have access to bug fixes as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the familiar desktop Windows 10 is likely to continue its cycle of two releases a year, with one major release in the spring and one minor, long-term support release in the autumn. With a major user interface (UI) update rumoured for the second release of the year, there may be a shift in the release cadence, with an initial minor spring update and a major update later in the year, but still with the same support model as is currently offered.

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Much of the design for both Windows 10X and the rumoured Windows 10 update builds on Microsoft’s Fluent Design, which can be seen in the redesigned icons for Windows 10 applications and the Start menu and taskbar update that have rolled out over recent releases.

Fluent Design includes support for Microsoft’s Acrylic transparency effects, as well as improved and more consistent controls. The expected design overhaul is likely to bring this to much, if not all, of Windows, replacing old control panels and dialogues, and moving much of Windows’ built-in tools to its settings app.

Delivering modern desktop and mobile apps

Application development remains at the heart of Microsoft’s platform strategy, with desktop, mobile and web being key constituents.

On desktop, the Fluent Design language remains key to the look-and-feel of Windows applications. At the same time, it’s finally merging its .Net platforms, moving to the open source .Net Core in .Net 5, and using the .Net Standard libraries to provide familiar application programming interfaces (APIs) that simplify porting code to the new platform.

While some original .Net features aren’t being directly supported in the new release, community versions of many missing APIs are currently being developed, to help move old code forward. Although .Net 5 is available on Windows, MacOS and Linux, its support for user interfaces only offers Windows and web graphical user interfaces. This means enterprise developers will need to turn to related technologies such as Xamarin Forms to give applications cross-platform support.

Perhaps one of the most important developments is the separation of UI controls from the various Windows SDKs in the cross-SDK WinUI 3 package. New controls can be released as and when they are developed or updated, and as they’re packaged with the code a change in one app won’t affect another. WinUI 3 works across platforms, in conjunction with .Net’s Maui, the multi-platform app UI model that’s being adopted by Xamarin and other .Net tooling.

Web applications will get access to WinUI through the third-party Uno Project’s tooling for Microsoft’s Web Assembly client Blazor, which compiles and runs .Net applications in the browser. Uno’s WinUI implementation works with .Net code running on MacOS and on Linux, so Windows developers will be able to write modern graphical .Net applications that run nearly anywhere.

Microsoft is deeply aware that its users can be anywhere, on any device. Office now runs on Android and iOS, taking advantage of the latest features such as iOS 14’s widgets and the iPad’s new keyboards with built-in trackpads. It’s now possible to use both mobile platforms and remain firmly in the Microsoft ecosystem – searching in Bing in Edge, using Outlook for email and using tools like OneNote and the rest of the Office suite.

Apple and Android

While Apple’s relatively locked-down environment doesn’t let Microsoft offer a full end-to-end user experience, that is not the case on Android. Here, Microsoft’s Launcher brings Microsoft user services to the front, integrating with Microsoft 365 services. There’s even a partnership with Google to improve multi-screen device support in Android, as part of the Surface Duo project. Microsoft is building multi- and folding-screen support into its Xamarin cross-platform UI toolkit, with controls that can adapt to work across different screen formats.

Technologies such as WinUI and Xamarin are key to another major development toolkit, Project Reunion. Building on the decoupling of UI components from the Windows SDKs, Project Reunion aims to decouple Windows from the Windows SDK, allowing it to ship separately from the operating system (OS). Components and controls will be delivered through NuGet. The Reunion toolkit intends to eventually merge both the Win32 and WinRT APIs, providing a common way to build and deploy code that runs across Windows and that can bring older applications to modern Windows installations without requiring significant rewrites.

Tools such as Visual Studio Code and the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) have made Windows an attractive proposition for developers again, along with hardware like the 15in Surface Book with its built-in Nvidia graphics processing unit (GPU). Making it easier to build compelling, well-designed Windows applications should help bring the code those new developers are building across to Windows.

A future Windows release will add GPU support to WSL, enabling common machine learning tools to build and develop new models that can then be exported as ONNX files, for use in Windows’ own WinML inferencing platform and applications.

Recent announcements from Microsoft’s App Assure programme show an increasing commitment to Arm processors as an alternative to Windows for lightweight, connected, portable devices with long battery life. Microsoft will now provide help to any organisation wanting to move existing applications to its Windows on Arm platform.

An update to its Surface Pro X tablet improves performance, and Windows will soon be adding emulation for 64-bit Intel applications to its existing Arm support for 32-bit Intel code. The developer tools team has improved support for Arm64 in .Net and Visual Studio’s C++ compiler, making it easy to target both Intel and Arm without changing any code.

Productivity and management from the cloud

Office’s move to a cloud-hosted subscription service was a logical step. What perhaps wasn’t expected was that the combination of Office and SharePoint would give birth to Microsoft Graph, a set of APIs and services that allows users to do much more with content and data than simply leaving it on a file share. While the Graph APIs add a powerful automation and extension framework, the introduction of machine learning in Project Cortex and its first product, SharePoint Syntex, turns content into a search-based knowledge management tool.

With Office delivered on a subscription basis, using monthly updates to add new features, you see regular updates of tooling like a built-in editor to help refine writing, and a machine learning resume generator that uses data from LinkedIn. Microsoft publishes a roadmap of planned and under-development features and has been rapidly rolling out new collaboration options and integration with Teams as more and more people work from home.

Using SharePoint as the basis for Office’s cloud services, along with Windows’ integrated OneDrive cloud storage, has also allowed Microsoft to quickly roll out new user-focused applications as part of its Microsoft 365 platform. Technologies such as Windows Forms, Lists and ToDo build on Graph, and in many cases turn what were once SharePoint features into simple, easy-to-use apps and APIs.

While Office 365 remains the consumer subscription version, enterprise subscriptions are now part of Microsoft 365. Here, systems management, via Intune, and security tooling add extra features. One key element, Microsoft Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP), helps analyse system and network behaviour, using machine learning to spot abnormal activities. Microsoft continues to add features, with an Android version recently released.

It’s all about the users

Microsoft may have taken its eye off the end-user ball in the early part of the 2000s, but things are very different now. With big data from Windows and Office telemetry guiding its decisions, Microsoft is shifting gear in how it approaches its user tools and applications. So 2021 will be a year where it continues to roll out new Microsoft 365 services building on Microsoft Graph, as well as two major updates to Windows 10. 

That renewed focus is being reflected in its developer tools and platforms, as it brings its Windows development platform together in a big Reunion splash and a major change in the .Net framework.

It looks like 2021 is shaping up to be an interesting year for Redmond.

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