With the release of Windows 10 right around the corner, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has made quite a few announcements regarding the features and capabilities of the latest iteration of the operating system.
Windows 8, the current version of Windows, was Microsoft's first attempt at creating an OS that worked well on both traditional PCs and touch devices. It hasn't been all that well received, particularly since it puts the touch-centric start screen front and center, treating the Windows desktop as a second-class citizen.
Windows 10 aims to not only fix all the problems people had with Windows 8, but also give Microsoft a fighting chance in the mobile market. Windows 10 will support universal apps, capable of running on any Windows 10 device, from PCs to smartphones. The goal is to bring developers back to the Windows platform, solving the problem of the dearth of apps on Windows Phone.
Along with universal apps, Windows 10 will also be able to run Android apps, although any Android app using a Google service will need to switch to using a Microsoft service instead. While iOS apps won't be able to run directly, Microsoft has created a toolchain that allows iOS apps to be compiled for Windows 10 with minimal changes to the code.
Windows 10 is an incredibly ambitious project for Microsoft, and if everything works as planned, the new OS could be a smash hit, cementing Microsoft's dominance of PCs and allowing the company to gain market share in mobile. But plenty could also go wrong, and if these new features fail to deliver on day one, Windows 10 could be a repeat of Windows 8, driving users away from the OS.
Delivering on universal apps
With Windows 10 running across a wide range of devices with vastly different screen sizes, writing separate code for each device would be a cumbersome task for developers. Universal apps set out to solve this problem by allowing developers to write a single application and have it adapt to whatever device on which it is running.
Windows 8 had its own form of universal apps that could run on both PCs and mobile devices, but the process required specific code to be written for each device's user interface. The core code could be shared, but it still required significant effort on the part of the developer.
Another problem: Windows 8 treated any modern Windows app the same way on tablets and PCs, running in full-screen mode. This made little sense on a desktop, and many PC users likely avoided the new start screen and modern apps altogether. Windows 10 fixes this by running modern Windows apps in a window on PCs, just like traditional desktop applications.
A feature called Continuum allows for the seamless switching of the user interface. When a two-in-one device is in PC mode, for example, everything behaves like a desktop app. The device can also go into tablet mode, in which the apps go full screen and change their interfaces accordingly based on the screen size and orientation.
If it works well, universal apps and Continuum will be game changers for Windows 10. But the technical challenge of implementing these feature shouldn't be underestimated. If it doesn't work as planned, or there are issues at launch, it could drive users away from Windows 10 in the same way that launch issues gave Windows 8 a bad reputation. I still remember the first time I used Windows 8 on a PC; I had to look up how to shut the thing down because, at launch, it was completely unintuitive on a PC. That kind of oversight can't happen again.
Android apps on Windows, sort of
Android apps running on Windows has been rumored for a long time, but now it's official. The mobile version of Windows 10 will come with a runtime layer that allows Android apps to run completely unmodified. The catch is that Android apps that use any of Google's services, like in-app purchasing, will need to be modified to use Microsoft's services instead.
The upside of Android apps on Windows is that they vastly increase the number of available apps for Windows Phone. The downside is that they might discourage developers from building Windows apps altogether, instead simply adapting Android apps. If Android apps run well on Windows 10, this might not be a huge problem. But the strength of Windows in the past has been all of its applications, and becoming a platform full of Android ports probably isn't the best idea.
The best-case scenario is that being able to run Android apps on Windows Phone spurs adoption of the platform and encourages developers to create actual Windows apps. The worst-case scenario is that consumers see no reason to switch to Windows Phone, given that it will run a subset of the apps that run on Android, and Microsoft's smartphone efforts fail. That would weaken Windows 10, since part of the appeal is that it works across all devices.
Windows 10 is probably the last chance Microsoft has to make the OS a viable smartphone platform. At the same time, if Windows 10 proves disappointing on PCs, there are alternatives like Macs and Chromebooks to which consumers can turn. Microsoft can't afford to mess this up.
Much like Windows 7 was a mulligan after Vista, Windows 10 is an attempt to more fully realize the vision of Windows 8. If universal apps and all the other features work well from day one, Microsoft will likely have a hit on its hands. But if these ambitious features prove finicky or unreliable, the Windows platform will suffer yet another blow.