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Microsoft is readying the release of Windows 10X, a new version of its Windows 10 OS designed for dual-screen devices. The OS variant is part of Microsoft's push to modernize a deeply entrenched technology, and experts believe some of its features may find their way to mainline Windows.
But the success of Windows 10X OS itself in the enterprise will depend on whether firms are willing to adopt the dual-screen format.
Microsoft is set to release the Windows 10X OS this fall, and it will initially run on the company's dual-screen Surface Neo device, a kind of tablet-laptop hybrid and an upcoming addition to Microsoft's Surface line of products. The OS was built specifically to support dual-screen PCs -- devices that Microsoft sees coexisting with, rather than replacing, Windows 10 desktops.
Although Windows 10X will present a familiar user experience for Windows 10 users, it is slated to differ from its forebear. It will support legacy Windows applications but will do so through the use of containers, which will separate applications from the OS itself. Microsoft has also touted a streamlined update process, with revisions to Windows 10X reportedly taking as little as 90 seconds to complete.
An attempt to move Windows forward
Mark Bowker, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said Microsoft's decision to develop an OS tailored to a new form factor was a positive one, especially in light of a growing desire by employees to work in the ways -- and on the devices -- that fit them best.
"Windows 10X does demonstrate that Microsoft is innovating beyond the core Surface lineup and addressing modern workstyles," he said. "I like to see that Microsoft is inspiring end users with new device type choices, and Windows 10X is an ideal OS for IT pros to work into existing management and security frameworks [given its resemblance to Windows 10]."
Steve Kleynhans, research vice president and analyst at Gartner, said Microsoft has been making changes to Windows in the past several years, but not always in visible ways. It is difficult, he noted, to make drastic changes to something so widely adopted.
"The problem is that Windows runs on a ton of machines around the world, and runs a ton of legacy applications," he said. "Microsoft's kind of challenged if they want to move Windows forward and take a significant jump."
This legacy, Kleynhans said, can hold the company back. He noted that past efforts to radically change Windows tended to fail, pointing to attempts like Windows RT, a version of Windows for ARM processors, and Windows S mode, a Windows 10 mode intended to provide security and stability through limiting user actions.
Steve KleynhansResearch vice president and analyst, Gartner
As dual-screen computers are a new form factor that have different needs than the traditional computer, Kleynhans said, they provide a blank slate for Microsoft.
"When they have a new style of device, like the Surface Neo, that will require a different type of application to make it light up," he said. "If users are going to have to do things in a new way anyway ... then it's kind of a good platform to launch a new Windows on."
Managing devices in Windows 10X
As the Windows 10X OS functions differently from Windows 10, it is yet to be determined whether desktop administrators will be able to use their full range of current tools to manage and secure the devices that use it. Experts agreed that the main method for managing Windows 10X likely would be through Microsoft's own Intune cloud-based management software.
"It remains to be seen how much [Microsoft will] open that up to third parties [and their management tools]," Kleynhans said. "They might open it up to a lot of third parties, but they're likely to be more restrictive."
Andrew Hewitt, analyst at Forrester Research, said he expects Intune would be the sole management tool for Windows 10X.
"[That] would mean IT decision-makers would have to have good comfort with cloud-based management in order to adopt it," he said. "The idea is to make these PCs as simple to manage as mobile phones, and I think the enhancements with 10X reflect that vision."
Hewitt added that the nature of Windows 10X might make it less susceptible to security problems. With Windows 10X running all its apps in containers, there will be compatibility with traditional Windows applications while security is maintained by ensuring a degree of separation from the OS.
"By containerizing data, the new device provides nice separation of data from bad actors and malware. For the IT decision-maker, the container piece means easier management for modern apps, but also difficulty in supporting Win32 apps," he said, referring to legacy Windows programs.
Changes may come to mainline Windows
The likelihood of Windows 10X's new features coming to future versions of Windows, industry observers said, depends on how well they function.
Kleynhans said Microsoft would like to solve the problem of legacy support through containerization but expressed worries about compatibility.
"I think, realistically, you're going to see a bunch of applications that aren't going to work well," he said. "In a lot of cases, it's not that containers don't work ... it's that applications that have had free run of the operating system simply don't behave well when you take that away from them."
As such, Kleynhans said, the container approach may not come to mainline Windows any time soon -- and when it does, users may demand the ability to switch the feature on and off.
Kleynhans said he could also see a revised updating process in future versions of Windows, although he said it may not come down to the 90-second level.
Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, said the adoption of Windows 10X's features would depend on the OS functioning well for enterprise.
"If proven, the [user experience] cleanup and innovation that was overdue will also come to regular Windows," he said. "In the meantime, dual users will suffer through the complexity of two Windows [user experiences] -- which was never there before."
Success or failure?
The question of whether the Windows 10X OS provides a preview of what's to come or is a one-off experiment is an open one. Its ultimate impact on the enterprise may be tied to the success -- or lack thereof -- of the dual-screen form factor.
Bowker said Windows 10X and the dual-screen PCs would face stiff competition from other PC alternatives.
"The question remains on why businesses would choose devices like Surface Neo over iPads, Android tablets and the Samsung [Galaxy] Fold that have an established ecosystem of applications," he said. "Is the Surface Neo just eye candy for the core Surface lineup and an opportunity to pull additional customers into the Microsoft device lineup?"
Mueller said the possibility of splitting the Windows experience between Windows 10 and Windows 10X could be a negative one, and emblematic of uncertainty in Microsoft's Windows division. He has noted that department has been without a clear leader since the departure of its former head, Terry Myerson, in 2018.
"It's another sign that Microsoft has challenges to keep the Windows franchise on track, now that there is no single Windows leader," he said.
Kleynhans, however, said it makes sense to launch a new version of Windows when curiosity about alternative form factors is high.
"There seems to be a lot of interest in folding devices generally, so it's well-timed in that sense," he said.