Microsoft needs to show Windows 11 is more than just Windows 10.5

Microsoft is about to unveil Windows 11 this morning, the company’s next major operating system. While a leak of Windows 11 has provided an early look at some of the design changes, I’m expecting to see a lot more today. A new Start menu, rounded corners, and a general UI overhaul have been expected for months, but Microsoft will need to show some big changes to Windows 11 to prove it’s more than just Windows 10 with a paint job.

A lot of what we’ve seen so far was already planned for Windows 10X, a version of Windows that was originally going to ship with dual-screen devices. Windows 10X included a new Start menu that acted more like a launcher, which was centered on the taskbar. 10X also featured many simplifications to the UI, and general usability improvements to Windows.

After the pandemic hit, Microsoft quickly attempted to rework Windows 10X for laptops, to offer a more simplified version of its OS for devices that were suddenly in high demand for remote work and schooling. The Windows 10X attempt to simplify Windows and its app model didn’t work out. Sources familiar with the situation tell The Verge that Microsoft had been struggling to hit an acceptable level of app compatibility with 10X over the past couple of years, after the company had originally planned to run every app in a special container to improve the security and performance of devices running the new OS.

Containers would have been a significant change to Windows, especially for developers, and there’s no sign in the leaked Windows 11 build that Microsoft plans to implement containers any time soon. Instead, Windows 11 appears to be adopting most of the UI changes that were part of Windows 10X. The leaked Windows 11 build also includes some changes to multitasking, improved support for multiple monitors, and some possible performance improvements – particularly for PC gaming.

The most significant change in Windows 11 could be Microsoft’s approach to the apps it allows in the Windows store. The leaked version of Windows 11 doesn’t include the new store, but Microsoft is rumored to be opening its store up to any Windows app. That means Chrome, Adobe Creative Suite, and many other apps that don’t exist in the Windows store will suddenly be available.

Perhaps more significantly, Microsoft is also expected to allow devs to bypass its payment system for store apps. That means developers won’t have to give Microsoft a cut of their revenue for in-app purchases, if they decide to use their own payment systems. This would be a huge change, and one that would put even more pressure on Apple’s App Store, just after Microsoft has helped Epic Games argue that iPhones are general purpose devices just like PCs.

Beyond the store, I’m hoping to see Microsoft differentiate Windows 11 from Windows 10 with a focus on daily users of the OS. Productivity is a key part of this, as is making Windows easier and more reliable for the millions who use it to study and work each day. Apple impressed us earlier this month with Universal Control, a simple way to use a keyboard and trackpad on a Mac to control an iPad. It makes dragging and dropping content between those devices really simple, and improves productivity if you’re using multiple devices.

There are some hints in the leaked version of Windows 11 that there could be some multitasking improvements on the way. A new control appears on the maximize buttons in Windows 11 allowing you to quickly snap apps into place. These snap features have existed in Windows for years, though, so I’m hoping we’ll see even more changes to help Windows users improve their daily workflow.

Beyond productivity, Windows is also used for PC gaming. A bigger effort to improve Windows 11 for gaming would be welcome news to the millions that use PCs instead of game consoles. The Xbox Game Bar and new Xbox app have been good additions, but the reality is that PC gaming is dominated by Steam and Discord. I’d like to see Microsoft recognize that, instead of trying to force Xbox-like experiences onto PC players. I think the Xbox Game Bar is a good step in the right direction, but there’s still much more Microsoft could do in Windows 11 and beyond.

I’m hoping Microsoft improves its Game Mode in Windows 11. The mysterious feature simply “optimizes your PC for play,” but the reality is that it does very little. When you run a game with Game Mode enabled, it suppresses Windows Update from installing drivers or trying to reboot your PC, and mysteriously “helps achieve a more stable frame rate depending on the specific game and system.” It doesn’t go far enough to limit other apps from hogging your CPU or even GPU resources, though. PC gamers often disable services, limit apps, and play with the registry instead.

Beyond these key areas, I’d also like to see Microsoft improve some of the fundamentals in Windows 11. I still have to dig into the registry to flip the direction of my mouse scroll wheel. While some mice include drivers that will change the direction, Windows doesn’t. It’s a bizarre omission, and there are many examples across Windows where Microsoft could do a better job of cleaning the OS up.

One of those is Settings, where I’m often thrown into the ancient world of the Control Panel to adjust settings. Microsoft keeps Control Panel around for its impressive legacy support, but it should be something you really need to dig for, not an area you randomly stumble upon.

I’m expecting Microsoft to have some surprises for Windows 11 that prove it’s not just a Windows 10.5, too. Microsoft employee Miguel de Icaza teased on Tuesday that the company will discuss something he’s spent years pushing for, before later deleting the tweet. It’s a mysterious tease for such a big event. De Icaza co-founded Xamarin, a tool for building mobile apps that can work across iOS and Android. Microsoft acquired Xamarin back in 2016, and the company has been improving its developer support in Windows ever since.

We’re bound to hear about improvements for Windows developers in Windows 11, and perhaps even some changes to Microsoft’s Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL). Linux GUI apps are on the way to Windows, and Microsoft is also holding a separate Windows developer-focused event today, so there’s likely to be a significant dev announcement coming.

Microsoft’s Windows 11 event will run for around 45 minutes start at 11AM ET today, and The Verge will be covering all the news live as it happens.

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