Windows 8 was supposed to finally unify the computing experience, bringing tablets and PCs together with Microsoft’s modern UI at its core. To say that hasn’t worked out would be a grotesque understatement. Consumers by and large have either avoided Windows 8 or managed to put up with its tablet-oriented feature set while grumbling to anyone who will listen. In response, Microsoft is accelerating its release cycle, and sources now say the first technical preview of Windows 9 (codenamed Threshold) will be out in late September or early October.
Threshold is going to be the logical continuation of changes the company started to make in Windows 8.1. Microsoft is rolling back the clear tablet focus for desktop users while maintaining usability on tablets in hopes Windows slates will finally catch on. One of the most complained about features in Windows 8 is the full screen start menu with big finger-friendly tiles. It matches Windows Phone and Xbox, but it makes no sense on a PC. Threshold will likely signal the return of the desktop start menu, but it will have a metro flair with smaller live tiles and smarter search. The 8.1 update added the visible start button back to the taskbar, so Windows 9 is just finishing the job.
Microsoft’s updated design aesthetic was carried through into apps built to work on Windows 8. These full screen apps were originally called “Metro,” and that will probably always be the most common name for the design style no matter how much Microsoft tries to distance itself from the term. Windows 8.1 added the ability to run metro apps in split screen mode with a maximum of three of four (depending on screen resolution), but Threshold will make metro apps fully resizable in traditional floating windows. The OS is still called Windows, after all.
Whether or not you use Metro-style apps on Windows 8, there’s always that strange Charms bar hiding on the side of the screen. You access it on tablets with an edge gesture, or by mousing to the corner on a regular PC. Threshold will allegedly kill that UI element, which really only served to hide common features in an unusual and not very discoverable place. That’s a lot of do-overs, but what about new stuff? Based on the information so far, Microsoft’s big new feature will be integration with Cortana, the voice assistant from Windows Phone. Windows 9 could also sport multiple virtual desktops. What do you do when desktop users aren’t happy? Give them more desktops.
The first technical preview might not show off all these changes, especially the much anticipated interface stuff. As a technical preview, it’s mainly intended to give developers a head start in ensuring software compatibility, so don’t expect a huge departure from Windows 8 just yet. Remember, the first developer builds of Windows 8 still had the translucent Aero UI. Despite the developer slant, Microsoft might still allow anyone to grab the first version of Threshold and take it for a spin.
You’ll probably want to wait at least until the consumer preview of Windows 9 to leave Windows 8 in the dust. Judging from Microsoft’s quicker update cycle, a consumer preview should be out around the end of 2014 with most of the final feature set in place. Windows 9 is expected to ship in Spring 2015, and only then will we see how successfully Microsoft has responded to customer complaints.