Soon, Microsoft is going to launch what it’s calling “the next generation of Windows”. All signs point to it being called Windows 11. While Windows 11 is getting a full version bump when Microsoft said it was going to use Windows 10 forever, that’s not the only reason it’s the next generation of Windows. This is a major, major change. It’s representative of a big shift in how Microsoft delivers Windows, but it’s also a big UX overhaul as well.
Here’s what we know so far.
Navigate this page:
When will Windows 11 be announced?
Microsoft sent out invitations on June 2 for a virtual event that will be held on June 24 at, you guessed it, 11am ET. If it wasn’t shooting for an “11” theme, it would have said the event was at 8am PT.
— Windows (@Windows) June 2, 2021
The event will be live-streamed, and you’ll be able to watch it here. Expect to see Windows and devices chief Panos Panay take the stage and say the word “pumped” a lot. This is actually going to be Panay’s first big event since he took over Windows, a step up from only being in charge of Surface devices.
Windows 11 is the biggest update in a decade
When CEO Satya Nadella teased Windows 11 at Build, he said that this is going to be the biggest update to Windows in over a decade. That is a bold statement. Let’s take a look back at what’s happened to Windows in the last decade.
Going back to 2011, Windows 7 was the current version of the OS and Steven Sinofsky was in charge of Windows. Indeed, the fall of Sinofsky, the rise and fall of Terry Myerson, and the rise of Panos Panay as the head of Windows has all happened in that time.
In 2012, that’s when Windows 8 launched, right alongside Windows RT, the Surface RT, and the Surface Pro. To be clear, pretty much all of those things failed terribly. However, failure or success, love them or hate them, all four of these things represented massive shifts for Windows, and Microsoft as a whole.
Let’s revisit that for a moment. Windows 8 was radical. It removed the Start Menu, a staple of the operating system since Windows 95. It replaced it with the Start Screen, a full-screen grid of tiles that scrolled from left to right. If you scrolled down, you’d get to the all apps list, which was separated by Metro apps and Win32 apps.
Oh, right, Windows 8 also introduced this idea of Metro apps. They were fullscreen apps that had to be controlled by swipe gestures. To close it, you had to swipe down from the top of the screen, rather than using the familiar X that we’ve known for decades. To top it off, there was no built-in tutorial for this.
Windows 8 did have a familiar desktop environment, along with the fullscreen touch environment. It very much felt like a desktop OS and a tablet OS mashed into one.
And then there was Windows RT, which failed even harder than Windows 8. This was Microsoft’s first attempt at Windows on ARM, except it couldn’t run Win32 apps. You were stuck with the new fullscreen Metro apps, Internet Explorer as your browser, and a semi-native version of Office 2013 called Office RT.
Surface is important too, because while Microsoft had made accessories in the past, it hadn’t made computers. The Surface RT was a terrible failure due to Windows RT. The Surface Pro, also named after the OS with Windows 8 Pro, was a failure for a different reason. It was thick, it was heavy, it was small, and it had terrible battery life. The Surface Pro 2 was a spec bump from Intel 3rd-gen to 4th-gen chips, fixing battery life, and then the Surface Pro 3 was the big redesign that led to the product we all know today.
Keep in mind that if we’re talking about Windows 11 being the biggest update to Windows in the last decade, we’re still on 2012. The next few years were mostly about fixing Windows 8 and internally, planning for Windows 10. Metro apps still couldn’t be used in windows, but the familiar icons for closing and minimizing them were added, and they’d finally show up in the taskbar.
On September 30, 2014, Microsoft announced Windows 10. The next day, the first Technical Preview was released and the Windows Insider Program was born. We still didn’t know much though, and it wasn’t until an event in January that we found out more.
In January 2015, Terry Myerson got on stage and announced that Windows 10 would be a free upgrade for anyone running Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or Windows Phone 8.1. This was a massive shift for the firm, as it wouldn’t make money on upgrades anymore. It was also done competing with itself. Windows 10 was going to compete with Windows 7, but that was going to be the last time.
That wasn’t the only fundamental shift that was announced. Windows 10 would introduce the next iteration of Metro apps, called the Universal Windows Platform. The idea was that you could write one app with responsive design and it would run everywhere, the obvious places being phone and PC. That day, HoloLens was announced too, and we also found out that Xbox was going to be running on Windows 10. One UWP app would run on all of these devices.
The rest is history. Windows 10 has evolved. It’s added new features, and removed some. The brand-new Edge browser has been torn down and replaced by a Chromium version. Windows Ink has been added, and things have just changed over time, as that was the promise of Windows as a service.
But when Satya Nadella says that Windows 11 is the biggest update to the OS in over a decade, this is what he’s promising to beat. Will Windows 11 be more significant than all of this? Probably not, and it’s more than likely that Nadella was hyping the upcoming announcement. Still, it’s going to be a big refresh.
But wasn’t Windows 10 the last version of Windows?
Back when Windows 10 was announced, it was going to be the last version of Windows. After that, we’d have Windows on a service, and the plan was to let it evolve over time. In fact, I’m sure Terry Myerson knew that there would have to be a big design overhaul at some point, and he thought that would be a Windows 10 update.
Here’s the big issue though. Everyone that said Windows 10 would be the last version of Windows doesn’t work there anymore. Panos Panay is in charge of Windows now, and he’s something of a showman.
A good way to think of this is a rebrand, but a rebrand that’s coming at a time where there’s a big UX overhaul. Under the hood, this is the same Windows 10 that we’ve known for years, and it could have shipped as a Windows 10 update. The new brand is about creating excitement around the idea that this is brand-new.
This is not what Windows 10X would have been, because that was only going to arrive on new PCs. Windows 10X was never going to be sold as retail licenses either. With Windows 11, there won’t be any technical reason that you can’t go ahead and install it on any PC.
Microsoft will likely continue on with Windows as a service, so this should be a free upgrade. But also, don’t expect this to be confirmed as the last version of Windows or anything. We’ll probably get Windows 12 in a few more years. In fact, since the Redmond firm isn’t glued to a certain name anymore, it might just go ahead and switch back to its three-year cycle of refreshing Windows.
Is Windows 10X dead?
Windows 10X was supposed to be the real next generation of Windows. Along with a complete visual overhaul, it had a lot of under-the-hood changes like running all apps in containers. Microsoft recently announced that it’s dead, and a lot of its features are being folded into Windows 11.
While it had been rumored long before that as Windows Lite, Windows 10X was actually unveiled alongside Microsoft’s Surface Neo as a dual-screen OS. It eventually abandoned its dual-screen ambitions, promising to deliver it on single-screen devices, like cheap laptops. Panos Panay actually wrote in a blog post that he wanted to meet customers where they’re at, even though you’d have to buy a new PC to get it.
Things pretty much fell apart from there. There were some Windows 10X emulators that came out when Microsoft has big plans, but when the single-screen build leaked, it couldn’t even run Win32 apps anymore. Instead, we’re getting Windows 11, which should have the UX elements from Windows 10X.
What’s new in Windows 11? Is this the Sun Valley update?
You might have heard the term Sun Valley tossed around for the last few months. That’s the codename for the big UX overhaul that’s coming with Windows 11. It’s not the codename for the OS as a whole though, just the new UX. It’s meant to make the OS more touch-friendly, something that Windows 10 has struggled with.
Here’s everything that we know is coming:
A new Microsoft Store
One thing that Satya Nadella said at the Build keynote is that the new OS will “unlock greater economic opportunity for developers and creators”. That leads us to a new Microsoft Store. Make no mistake; this is a big part of the update.
The Microsoft Store really hasn’t taken off in the same way that the company had hoped it would. When Windows 10 was first announced, the company had four “bridges”. One was a way to recompile iOS code as a Windows app, one was to get Android apps running on Windows, one was to package hosted web apps as UWP apps, and one was to package desktop apps as Store apps. The iOS bridge technically still exists, even if it’s mostly stagnant, and the Android bridge died before Windows 10 even shipped.
But desktop apps still haven’t made it to the Store in the same way that Microsoft would have liked. With Windows 11, there should be some big changes. Developers will be able to submit their apps without packaging them, and they can also host them on their own CDN, meaning that they won’t actually have to be distributed by Microsoft, just through the Microsoft storefront.
This is opening up the Microsoft Store in a big way. Previously, big-time apps like Google Chrome were left out because of Microsoft’s own rules. Now, it should be a whole lot easier to put your app in the Store.
x64 emulation for Windows on ARM
You remember Windows on ARM, right? Windows 10 devices with ARM processors have struggled with a lack of apps, since they’ve only supported 32-bit emulation. With Windows 11, those devices will finally get support for 64-bit app emulation. This is something that’s been in testing with Insiders for a while.
A big visual overhaul, with rounded corners
This is the big thing that Microsoft is going to show off at its event. Windows 11 is going to be visually different from Windows 10. Because as Windows 10 has had some subtle changes to the design over the years, it hasn’t gotten a whole new look, like the kind of new look we typically get from a new version of Windows.
And yes, there will be rounded corners. Windows has been focused on sharp corners ever since Windows 8, and those squared-off tiles made their way into Windows 10 as well. Windows 11 will follow suit with more modern operating systems like iOS and Android now.
There are also new, more colorful icons throughout the operating system. You’ll find these in File Explorer, Device Manager, and pretty much anywhere else. These are available in Windows 10 previews, and they make for a pretty big visual change on their own.
It’s not just about a new look though. The way you interact with the UI will be different as well. A big focus here is making Windows better for touch, something that Windows 10 has struggled with. Indeed, while Windows 8 was all-in on touch, Windows 10 felt like it scaled back a bit too much. Windows 11 will support more swipe gestures and such, but more importantly, it should be more consistent with what happens when you tap on something.
None of this is official, but if you want an idea of what the OS UI will look like, look toward the old Windows 10X leaks. When Microsoft said it was killing Windows 10X and putting some parts of it into Windows 11 instead, the UX was a big part of what it was talking about. The one thing you shouldn’t consider here are apps, because Windows 10X was using the same UWP inbox apps as Windows 10.
When is Windows 11 coming out?
Windows 11 is coming out this fall. The timeline is just very different from a normal Windows feature update.
Normally, new features arrive in the Dev channel of the Windows Insider Program over the course of six months to a year. Insiders test them out, they give feedback, and things evolve. Once the Windows 10 feature update RTMs, it goes to the Beta channel. It sits there for servicing for a few months, and then it goes to the Release Preview channel shortly before release.
This is different because Microsoft hasn’t been letting people test this as features have been developed. Windows RTMs in June and December every year now, ever since the schedule lined up with Azure. If you’re familiar with that cycle, this might freak you out a little bit. How can Microsoft announce something on June 24 and have it ready in time to ship this fall?
There’s an easy answer, which is that Windows 10 has been ready for a while and Microsoft hasn’t told you. Windows 10 Insider Previews have continued to ship, but the Redmond firm is stripping out the Windows 11 shell. Make no mistake; Windows 11 is more or less ready to go.
After it gets announced, the preview is going to go out to Windows Insiders. It should head to the Beta channel shortly after, and that’s also when OEMs are going to start to get it for installing on new laptops and desktops. In October or November, Windows 11 will be available to everyone, presumably as a free update.