Windows Technical Preview is Microsoft's Alchemy Moment

Windows Technical Preview is Microsoft's Alchemy Moment

Houston, we have no problems

Having now installed the Windows Technical Preview on several machines both physical and virtual and using both upgrades and clean installs, it's perhaps time to take stock of what's happening here. This first pre-release version of Windows 10 has the very specific goal of convincing Windows 7 users that there is a future for them that includes the best parts of Windows 8 with none of the tomfoolery. And on that note, it succeeds mightily.

Those who are curious about the touch-based advances in Windows 10—which will likewise provide an obvious upgrade path for Windows 8.x users on tablets, 2-in-1s and other touch hardware—will need to wait for a future, consumer-focused preview release. In this initial Windows Technical Preview, those features are either carried over wholesale (if temporarily) from Windows 8.1 or rudely exorcised without any viable alternative. That's going to change. But for now, the Windows Technical Preview is not a friendly place for tablets.

But then it doesn't have to be. By the time Microsoft shipped Windows 8.1 last October, it had evolved the touch-focused Modern environment into something very usable. Subsequent releases, including Windows 8.1 Update 1 and now the Windows Technical Preview, are aimed at the sweet spot of the Windows user base: The billion-plus people who use Windows every day on non-touch hardware.

Those numbers, incidentally, include me. My primary use system is a desktop PC with no touch capabilities at all. My primary use portable PC until this past summer was a non-touch Ultrabook. And even though I've been using Surface Pro 3 on the go since mid-summer, it's fair to say that I use it mostly as a very thin, light and portable laptop. Yes, I do touch the screen, but usually as a tertiary interface of sorts, a bit of quick scrolling while reading, that kind of thing.

So when it comes to touch devices, for me at least, that leaves a smart phone and a (mini) tablet. The smart phone bit is easy: I prefer Windows Phone and will continue using this platform for the foreseeable future. (The thought of a Windows 10 preview for phones makes my leg twitch like a dog dreaming about chasing a rabbit. I can't wait.)

But the tablet is more complicated. I'm currently using a year-old iPad mini with Retina Display for reading and movie/TV show watching on trips, but I will quickly and gratefully switch to whatever Nexus 9 device Google deigns to release this fall. The issue here is that while there are excellent Windows mini-tablets—the Dell Venue 8 Pro, for example, or the Lenovo Miix 2—the content ecosystem hasn't caught up. A Windows Phone tablet would be interesting, which is another way of saying "the ability to run Windows Phone apps on a Windows 8.x/10 would be interesting," but we're not there yet. I'll jump ship when and if I can.

Which brings us to the Windows Technical Preview. I've put it on my Surface Pro 3, since it's a primary system and I want to use it everywhere if possible. Based on my experiences on other systems, I'll be putting it on my desktop over the weekend as well, and hopefully I won't need to look back. But what I can say, even at this early stage, is that Microsoft—by which I mean "Terry Myerson, Joe Belfiore and whatever so-far-unnamed souls who are really making this all happen"—has cracked it. They've done the impossible. They've figured out how to make this work.

That is, the company has two separate groups to please here. There's the humongous group of people using Windows 7 (and XP)—a group that is over 1.1 billion strong—who have assessed Windows 8.x fairly or not and decided that they are not interested. And then there's the smaller group—but still a huge audience, consisting of some 200 million people—who not only use Windows 8.x but have in fact embraced it on touch-based PCs and devices.

These two audiences aren't just different, though there is some cross-over. They're polar opposites who cannot understand how the other gets anything done or works efficiently.

I've spent the past few years dedicated somewhat disproportionately on the smaller of these two groups. Indeed, I've written a 600 page e-book, Windows 8.1 Field Guide—still just $2, folks, if you're looking for a nice way to support your favorite Windows blogger—that focuses almost entirely on that new, touch-centric stuff. Why? Because it's new and different. In some way it's completely nuts. But that's what makes it fun, I guess.

But now we're collectively turning our attention back to what I think of as "traditional PC usage," that Windows 7 model of desktop computing in which touch is, at best, a minor concern and most certainly takes a back seat to keyboard/mouse/trackpad, we get to Windows 10. And as implied by my Windows Technical Preview Feature Focus, the actual number of major new features, at least in this first peek, is pretty small. What this thing is really about is satisfying the needs of that two-thirds of the Windows user base that just hasn't made the leap to multi-touch.

And again. I think it's going to work.

Here's what we see in the Windows Technical Preview. We see a renewed emphasis on the desktop environment that everyone actually still uses. This is important because Microsoft's previous plan was to step away from that desktop across subsequent releases and embrace the Modern environment fully. Under the new plan, the non-Pro version of Windows 10 will combine aspects of Windows RT and Phone into a single SKU that works on handsets and small tablets, and eschews the desktop. But the Pro and Enterprise versions—which is what Microsoft has made available in the Technical Preview—will soldier forward with the desktop as the primary shell. Those Modern apps—excuse me, Universal apps—and their runtime and app model will continue, but will now run within—and interact with—the desktop.

Folks, this actually makes sense. And where Windows 8 gave us a weird Frankenstein's monster in which a mobile platform and the classic desktop platform were jammed together in unholy ways, Windows 10 is a saner, more consistent experience. Here, we see the Modern platform treated as just another runtime, alongside Win32, Java, Adobe Air, web apps, whatever. These apps all run side-by-side. As they should.

I think the success of this new approach is all the more impressive because it doesn't require Microsoft to step back from its previous Modern platform investments. Those apps are still sandboxed and safe. They will still work across mobile devices (phones, tablets) and PCs. They will now interact with the desktop on devices that support that interface. But they will continue to work fine on those without a desktop.

This isn't making lemonade; it's alchemy. It's making gold out of lead. It's not a minor change, despite the relatively small list of new "features" in this release. It's profound. And I couldn't be happier with what I'm seeing here.

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