There have been leaks and legal threats. And yesterday there was a glitzy launch event. Windows 11 is upon us, and it looks a lot like Windows 10. And Windows 8.1. And Windows 8.
Everything you loved (and hated) about the flagship operating system is still there, though Cortana has thankfully been shepherded away to die a quiet death. The start menu has moved into the middle of the screen, and uh, there are new startup sounds and wallpapers.
So, if you’re wondering why such piecemeal changes warrant a whole new version of Windows, you’re not alone.
It’s a far cry from the seven years Wesley Miller spent at Microsoft as a program manager in the operating system and MSN divisions. Back in late 2000 and early 2001, when Miller and his colleagues were preparing for the release of Windows XP, the rationale and the brief they were given was clear: to ensure that anyone, from university students to pensioners, could turn on a PC and not have any issues. “That really helped us have that consumer mindset, where that part of Windows had been so business-focused for years and not really focused on usability,” Miller says.
Today, he’s not so sure of the purpose behind the development and release of Windows 11. “I’m just not seeing it yet,” he says. “And that’s sort of problematic.”
Windows 11, which is a free upgrade for people already on Windows 10, appears to be a collection of surface-level changes to the user interface – which, added together, don’t justify launching a whole new operating system. “UI isn’t a guiding principle,” says Miller. “What does this help consumers do better, faster, easier, with more simplicity they couldn’t do with Windows 10? I haven’t seen that yet.”
Cynics say the release of Windows 11 is about money and marketing. “You’re just shifting the perception,” says Radu Tyrsina, founder of Windows Report, a popular Microsoft news website. “You’re impacting how people perceive the product and how they consume it. It’s a process, not an event.” A survey of more than 8,000 people by Windows Report found that a third have been waiting for a new operating system, rather than an incremental upgrade, to buy new hardware.
It’s certainly a change of approach from six years ago, when a Microsoft employee stood up at a Microsoft event and publicly stated that Windows 10 would be its last ever operating system. “There were team members back then who made broad, sweeping statements that don’t have to stand the test of time,” says Miller.
Microsoft recently installed a new team to oversee Windows, and with that comes a desire to take a different approach. “You get the sense of a team that’s trying to focus on more of a vision than we saw with Windows 10,” Miller says.
The issue is that we don’t need visions with operating systems anymore, and arguably haven’t since the release of Windows XP in 2001 or Windows 7 in 2009. Miller argues that both, including the former which he worked on, were “game-changing” in that they altered the fundamentals of how the operating system worked and… well, operated. “Now the operating system is just a utility for most consumers,” he says. “They’re trying to get people excited about it, but consumers don’t get excited about an operating system anymore.”
That wasn’t always the case: Windows 3.0, released in 1990, was very much an operating system for hobbyists who had the time and devotion to understand its intricacies. Like many tech products of the time, it had its quirks, but in the intervening 30 years operating systems have ironed out almost all major issues so they just (in theory) work from the get-go. Compare the experience of using an iPhone or Android phone, for example, to using Windows 3.0. Windows 95 turned PCs from something nerds used after reading a manual into a product everyday users could try with success from the start. “It’s just a commodity,” says Miller. “People don’t think about it.” It’s the reason why Microsoft has spent the last six years punctuating the Windows user’s experience with incremental, automatic updates every six months or so with little fanfare – rather than releasing a whole new version. Any updates to operating systems now – ever since Windows 7 – have been window dressing or polishing the silver.