With the rumor mill and even my own sources starting to excitedly drop hints about a coming new major version of Windows, it's time to dust off those beta-testing skills, wash the bad taste of Windows 8 out of your mouth and get busy: Within a month or so, we'll have a technical preview of Windows 9 to tinker with. And this time around, you might actually want to pay attention.
To understand why, let's start with what just happened: Windows 8. How do I put this delicately?
Windows 8 has been an unprecedented disaster for Microsoft, one that can't be judged by simple measures like units sold. Some have called it Windows Vista 2.0, which is insulting. . . to Windows Vista.
No, really: Windows 8 is actually a much bigger problem than was Vista. With Vista, the solution was easy: Just make it faster, lighter, and smaller, and slap a new name on it—Windows 7—and watch the accolades roll in.
But Windows 8? Oh, boy. Windows 8 is a tough one.
See, Windows 8 isn't just the next version of Windows 7. It's the next version of Windows 7 with a crazy new mobile operating system—Metro, Modern, Immersive, who cares—bolted right on top of it. Many, myself included, have referred to Windows 8 as a Frankenstein OS because of this bizarre comingling of desktop and mobile OSes in a single system. But that, too, is insulting. To Frankenstein. (It's more of a "Young Frankenstein" OS. But I digress.)
Don't get me wrong; as a technology enthusiast, I found Windows 8 to be fascinating, and a crazy, crazy experiment for a company as milquetoast as Microsoft. I've had no issues using it, though it's worth noting that my initial reaction to the OS—in developer preview form back in fall 2011—was just about the same as everyone else's. That is, I threw my hands in the air and went back to Windows 7. But I've been using Windows 8 exclusively for years now, and I'm used to it. Lots of people aren't.
If they're lucky, they never will be. The team that created Windows 8 has been scattered to the wind, with most of the highest-placed lieutenants leaving the company for good measure. Since the epic disaster of Windows 8, the company has been busy jumping from strategy to strategy—"devices and services, no, wait, it's "mobile first, cloud first," oh, but let's throw productivity in there somewhere too—and Windows was listing along with the rest of the company, waiting for the compass to stop moving.
The Windows team—which is now comprised largely of former Windows Phone team members, whom I'll resist calling Windows Phonies—has taken some small steps to clean up Windows 8 through releases such as Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update (1). But as noted, fixing Windows 8 isn't as simple as making Windows work pretty well with mouse and keyboard again. That kind of effort is as obvious and simple as was Windows 7. Again, Windows 8 is a bigger problem.
So now we're talking about Windows 9. Which might not be called Windows 9 by the time it's released, but is now being developed under the codename "Threshold." We've known about Threshold for a while now, but in recent weeks, information has been dribbling out about a technical public preview of the OS that could ship as soon as September. (My sources say early October is more likely, but whatever.)
As former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once so aptly said, "There are known knowns. . . there are known unknowns [and] there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know." Threshold is a lot like that.
We do know that Threshold will continue the push to make Windows more acceptable to the 1.5 billion people who use Windows on traditional, non-touch computers. This is a good thing, but then Windows 7 is also more acceptable for much of that audience, so it's not clear why this is generating so much excitement beyond the implicit acknowledgment that Microsoft is actually listening (again) to what its customers want. We know that it is adding features like a new Start menu that will look and work somewhat like the Windows 7 Start menu (which Microsoft's customers seem to really want) but will also offer some nod to the Metro/Modern/Immersive direction that the company so deftly jammed down our collective throats in Windows 8. It's fair to say the user base is a bit more ambivalent about that functionality.
We've also known for some time that Threshold will let users run Metro/Modern/Immersive apps in floating windows on the Windows desktop. Again, if you really think about the step backwards that this represents, it's almost laughable that some people are excited by the very notion of this functionality. But I will say this: It would be exciting to a bigger audience if anyone could just name one killer/gotta-have-it Metro/Modern/Immersive app.
More recently, we've discovered that Threshold might remove the reviled Charms interface, which is so nearly universally loathed in Windows 8. Threshold may add virtual desktops, a feature that's been hidden in Windows since the advent of NT (and free to use if you just download Sysinternals' Desktops utility). Cortana voice activation is coming. Obviously.
None of this stuff should be particularly exciting to IT, in my opinion, in the sense that there are a few things in there—like a Start menu—that should always have been at least options in Windows 8 to begin with. And there are things in there—Metro/Modern/Immersive apps on the desktop, for example, or Cortana—that should simply draw a giant yawn.
Despite all this, I bring up Threshold and the coming technical preview for one reason and one reason only. And it's something that, frankly, you should be excited about. It's something that should make you want to really evaluate this system whenever it does ship this all. And that's this:
The Threshold technical preview—which will be open to the public—is aimed at specifically at the enterprise and IT, Microsoft's most important customers. You guys. This preview is being designed to prove to you that Microsoft has not forgotten about you and, more important, that it has not forgotten about what matters most to you in Windows.
For Microsoft, Threshold is an attempt to prevent Windows 7 from becoming the next Windows XP. It's an attempt to put the bad vibes and consumer focus of Windows 8 behind it. It's an attempt at righting the ship and preventing the next big technology migration to Chromebooks, Macs, Android devices, iPhones and iPads. I'd say this is a release Microsoft needs to get right. It's one you're going to want to pay attention to.
But it's also a release to which Microsoft will want to pay attention. They'll need to pay attention to you and to anyone with actual feedback about how well this does or doesn't work in business environments. Microsoft's willingness to embrace this feedback will tell the real story nd will let us know if we're on the threshold of an epic victory. . . or an epic defeat.