In the opening of a (truly hilarious) Microsoft promo video for Windows 95, the narrator says, “I just want a new operating system!” That’s exactly what we’ve been taught to look forward to every few years, and Wednesday’s release of Windows 10 feels like a satisfying step in the progression. But this time things are different, because this is “the last version of Windows.”
As the Verge reported in May, Microsoft developers started talking about a fundamental shift in Windows at the company’s Ignite conference. Instead of the periodic large releases of big-name operating systems, Microsoft wanted to make Windows 10 a streamlined, device-agnostic platform that could be reinvented whenever and however the company wanted on any given day. CEO Satya Nadella told BBC News on Wednesday that, “It’s not just another release of Windows, it’s the beginning of a new era.”
In the new Windows world everything is seamless and infinite. In a statement about Windows 10 on Tuesday, Microsoft said, “Windows 10 is delivered as a service and kept automatically up-to-date with innovations and security updates.” It’s a mental shift from thinking of operating systems as individual releases to thinking of them as boundless platforms. Erick Schonfeld explained the concept well on TechCrunch in 2011: “The approach is more like updating a website than a piece of client software. The version numbers don’t really matter. What version of Amazon are you on? Exactly.”
But in 2011, Schonfeld obviously wasn’t talking about Windows 10 (Windows 8 was just debuting). He was talking about a service we all know that’s been doing incremental updates for years: Google Chrome. In 2010, Chrome changed from pushing updates every few months to releasing them every six weeks. The idea was that fixes and features should go live whenever they were ready. If something missed its deadline it would just come out six weeks later instead of holding everything up. When updates are that frequent, it doesn’t really matter what “version” you’re on.
Chrome program manager Anthony Laforge wrote in 2010:
Predictable fixed duration development periods allow us to determine how much work we can do in a fixed amount of time, and makes schedule communication simple. We basically wanted to operate more like trains leaving Grand Central Station (regularly scheduled and always on time), and less like taxis leaving the Bronx (ad hoc and unpredictable).
Incremental updates serve Windows 10’s goal of being a universal operating system and offering “one experience” across PCs, tablets, phones, Raspberry Pi, Xbox One, and HoloLens (plus the 2,000 devices Microsoft says it’s testing for compatability). Managing updates on so many different devices is currently pretty painful, and Windows 10 aims to fix that. If nothing else, streamlining the update process makes devices more secure, because they automatically get their patches and bug fixes instead of relying on users to initiate a download.
The pressing question, then, will be whether Microsoft can deliver significant innovations and redesigns without affecting Windows’ daily performance. Windows 10 is culling usage statistics to suggest times for automatic restarts (so updates can take effect), and presumably many updates will happen behind the scenes without requiring a restart at all. But Microsoft will need a way to generate excitement about new features as they come out, work carefully to avoid pushing out flawed updates, and generally keep users informed. You wouldn’t want your operating system to morph into something you never asked for, right?