Microsoft shifts Windows 10X towards more of a Chrome OS competitor

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Microsoft confirmed yesterday that it’s reprioritizing its Windows 10X development to focus on regular single-screen devices. The Windows variant was originally intended to run on new dual-screen hardware, but sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans say the company wants to shift the operating system to launch first on secure and portable laptop-shaped devices.

Changes to Windows 10X include a simplified interface, an updated Start menu, multitasking improvements, and a method for running apps in a special container for performance and security. At the heart of 10X is Microsoft’s overall goal to create a stripped back, streamlined, and modern cloud-powered version of Windows.

This simplification has put Windows 10X devices on a path to eventually compete with Chromebooks, which Microsoft has always seen as a big threat in businesses and schools. The Windows and Chrome OS competition is particularly relevant when you consider Google’s focus on the cloud with Chromebooks. It’s something that Windows and devices chief Panos Panay hinted at yesterday. “Our customers are leveraging the power of the cloud more than ever, and we believe the time is right to lean into this acceleration in a different way,” says Panay.

Windows 10X on the Surface Neo.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Microsoft had originally been planning to launch Windows 10X first on dual-screen devices, measure feedback, and then tweak the OS for laptops. The company has been carefully avoiding detailing its plans for traditional clamshell laptops, but a document leaked last year revealed how Windows 10X will adapt for single-screen devices.

We understand Microsoft reprioritized Windows 10X work after it was clear the coronavirus pandemic was a bad time to start launching dual-screen devices. Demand for traditional PCs, webcams, and laptops has increased recently, and Microsoft has seen a 75 percent increase in Windows 10 usage year-over-year. Students and workers are increasingly turning to laptops instead of smartphones and tablets as they’re stuck working or learning from home.

Microsoft notified PC makers like Lenovo, Dell, HP, and Asus recently that it would no longer deliver Windows 10X for dual-screen devices in 2020. Lenovo is still pressing ahead with the launch of its foldable ThinkPad X1 Fold with Windows 10 Pro, but it’s unclear what Dell, HP, and Asus will do with their unannounced dual-screen devices.

Microsoft is now repositioning Windows 10X as a streamlined version of Windows 10 for laptops. Most of the existing 10X UI changes and underlying platform work is relevant for clamshell laptops, and it will now arrive first on single-screen devices. That includes the new Start menu, the modern look and feel of Windows 10X, and most importantly the new app container technology.

Microsoft Surface Laptop

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

This could cause some confusion, though. Microsoft had planned to initially deliver Windows 10X on dual-screen devices, but now laptops will appear with both Windows 10X and Windows 10. Microsoft has already tried and failed with a similar approach with Windows 10S in the past, and the comparisons are obvious.

Windows 10X does have the benefit of some deep platform changes, though, as well as Microsoft’s focus on modernization and simplification. It lends itself perfectly towards an OS that could power low-cost and cloud-powered laptops.

While Microsoft won’t be ready to fully detail its Windows 10X plans at Build later this month, the company will reveal some details that will hint at where 10X is heading. “We are going to share how we will reduce complexity for developers by making it easier than ever to build for all 1 billion Windows 10 devices, all at once,” says Panay. “We will share how we will enable developers to build applications that seamlessly enable cloud-powered virtualization.”

Combined with Microsoft’s new commitment to “accelerate innovation in Windows 10,” it’s clear that there’s a renewed focus on leveraging the cloud for core parts of Windows. That could involve 10X devices running virtualized apps from the cloud, similar to what Microsoft has been delivering to enterprises in the form of Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V).

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Microsoft is also increasing its focus on Windows Virtual Desktop, something that CEO Satya Nadella mentioned in internal leadership meetings as a key area of focus for the company during the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak. Windows Virtual Desktop usage has grown more than three times, and Nadella is also prioritizing work on Microsoft Teams after a surge in demand.

The sudden acceleration and adoption of remote working has dramatically shifted how we all work and learn in a matter of weeks. “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” explained Nadella in Microsoft’s recent earnings.

How Microsoft now responds to the pandemic with Windows 10X will shape the direction of the company’s operating system for years to come. Microsoft’s Surface chief, Panos Panay, took control of Windows earlier this year, in a shift that will see the OS focused on tighter hardware integration in the future.

That future is now changing in unexpected ways, but it’s a unique opportunity for Microsoft to respond with an OS that has always been ready for productivity and education. Microsoft’s new Windows boss seems to be ready to take that challenge on. “We have an incredible opportunity and responsibility in front of us to build more seamless experiences across software and hardware for our customers around the world,” says Panay. “I am pumped for what the team has in store.”

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