When Apple founder Steve Jobs coined the phrase ‘It just works’, he was trying to sell the idea of a computer so simple that anyone could pick it up and start using it.
Over the years Microsoft Windows has become more user-friendly, but as anyone who’s had to help a relative reinstall printer drivers or purge a PC laden with crapware knows, Windows can still be a tricky OS for the average user to navigate.
Rumours have emerged that Microsoft is planning to release a stripped-back, easier-to-use version of Windows, which would emulate the simplicity of Chrome OS with its cloud-based apps.
Clues that Microsoft may be readying this lightweight version of Windows were found in code in the latest preview builds of Windows 10, where there was mention of a Cloud and CloudN edition, as seen above.
Sources at Microsoft told ZDNet’s Mary Jo-Foley that Windows 10 Cloud will be a simplifed version of the OS, which will only run Unified Windows Platform apps installed from the Windows Store.
The edition will, according to these sources, attempt to head off the threat of people choosing easy-to-use and cheap Chromebooks over Windows PCs, and could be revealed in April.
Low-cost convertible Windows laptops are already going head-to-head with Chromebooks in the education market, where Chromebooks are proving increasingly popular, albeit with Windows laptops being slightly-higher specced and costing more.
Steve Kleynhans, research VP with Gartner, said that while he couldn’t comment on the specifics of Windows 10 Cloud edition, it would make sense for Microsoft to replicate the simplicity of Chrome OS in Windows.
“Microsoft faces challenges with Windows on a number of fronts,” he said.
“While Windows is deeply entrenched on PCs, there is a looming challenge coming from devices that look like PCs but are much lighter-weight – specifically Chromebooks.
“To shut these out, Windows needs to scale down not only in price, but in complexity as well.”
According to Kleynhans, “an increasing number of users want a device you just turn on and surf the web”, and this is where Chromebooks and Google’s ecosystem of cloud apps can appeal.
Microsoft needs to “rethink the user experience for those users who are 100% cloud connected”, he said, particularly in light of moves by Microsoft and the company behind Ubuntu to run desktop PCs off a phone.
“Devices that just work and without requiring any fiddly management effort on the part of the user, and are linked up with Microsoft’s ecosystem of services would seem to be a necessary next step.”
Richard Edwards, principal research analyst with Ovum, believes that simplifying Windows is key to addressing one of the OS’ primary drawbacks.
“I’ve long held the view that complexity is the Achilles’ heel of the Windows PC, and that user frustration and aversion to Windows are Microsoft’s foe, not Apple or Google.”
Edwards said that Chrome OS is five years old now, and as it moves out of the education market “this move by Microsoft could counter any surge from Google”.
“High-speed internet access, including WiFi and 3G, has given rise to streaming across all areas of media consumption, including high-end gaming, so I would not be surprised if Microsoft were to offer a version of Windows 10 that was streamed from the cloud along with a curated collection of (UWP) apps,” he said, speculating that the Cloud edition could be linked to moves by Microsoft and Citrix to offer Windows 10 desktops hosted on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.
While Foley’s source didn’t suggest this new version of Windows would be hosted in the cloud, doing so could improve security and ease of use for novice users, offset by issues around performance, offline access and privacy.
There would also be users who would object to the move as an attempt to limit how end-users set up and use their PCs. That said, there’s no suggestion that other versions of Windows would be affected, and a plethora of Linux-based operating systems that allow users to set up the machine however they want.
Of course, Microsoft has previously tried and failed to release a version of Windows that only ran Windows Store apps, the now discontinued Windows RT. Part of the reason for the failure of that OS was the lack of Windows Store apps relative to Windows’ extensive back catalog of legacy desktop apps. While the Windows Store has more choice today, it is still missing many Windows’ desktop releases.
But in Windows 10, with its integrated cloud-based services such as Cortana and OneDrive, Gartner’s Kleynhans thinks Microsoft has the basis for building a simple-to-use and always-online OS.
“Windows 10 has a lot of the plumbing and services necessary to pull this off, but it needs some repackaging and tweaking.”