The latest word on the street is that Microsoft’s new Windows 10X operating system has been put on the back burner for now or maybe cancelled completely. A release date was never really announced, but it had been touted for a while as releasing with the Surface Neo dual-screen tablet in the fall of 2020. That obviously never happened and it looks like the Surface Neo isn’t going to happen either. Maybe this is partly due to poor sales of the Surface Duo? See our review of the Surface Duo. We don’t really know, but we did get to try the Windows 10X beta in a virtual machine for a while.
Could it have competed with Chromebooks?
Chromebooks made a name for themselves as being cheap laptops with web browsers (and nothing else) that were super easy to manage and lock down for use in schools where students only really needed to access web sites. Super basic, super inexpensive, super reliable was a huge draw for schools. Windows and Macintosh computers can’t do that. Sure you can get super inexpensive Windows laptops, but they still have a lot that can go wrong with them. Macs have a lot that can go wrong too, perhaps less so than ultra-cheap Windows PCs, but inexpensive or affordable is not really an option there and they can’t be managed as easily as Chromebooks either.
On paper, it kind of makes sense to make a version of Windows that mainly only runs a web browser, is easy to lock down, runs on cheap computers, and runs some basic apps available in the Windows Store… but…
We’ve been here before, right?
Hasn’t Microsoft tried this many times before? We’ve got Windows 10 S, that’s kind of the same thing, right? It’s locked down to only install Windows app store apps, it runs on cheaper computers, and it has some decent enterprise management features.
Before that we had Windows RT which was a version of Windows 8 made to run on less expensive hardware that ran ARM processors. That actually had a full version of Office included, but essentially not much else besides the kind of terrible Windows 8 store apps and Internet Explorer 11 for web browsing.
We also had Windows CE which goes back as far as the ’90s. Yeah, I’m talking about the late 20th century. Windows CE meant “Compact Edition” and ran on really low-end battery-friendly hardware. Just like Windows RT, Windows 10S, and Windows 10X, it couldn’t run any of the pro-level real software programs that people with Windows computers really wanted to run, but it did have a web browser, Outlook, and the ability to install other programs that were compatible. It was around and in use for so long, I think it probably had a bigger ecosystem than Windows RT ever did.
Chrome OS is almost professional level now
With Windows 10X, it sounds like Microsoft was chasing the puck to where it was 6 or 7 years ago. Chrome OS isn’t just a web browser anymore. There are expensive high-end Chromebooks now, and Chrome OS’s capabilities have grown significantly.
Chrome OS now supports running many full-featured Linux programs. It does this in a virtualized container which takes a significant performance hit, but still… it’s now possible to do some serious work on Chrome OS. That wouldn’t be true with Windows 10X. That’s a huge advantage. Microsoft probably knows this as they’ve put a lot of effort in creating a Linux Subsystem for Windows (unfortunately named Windows Subsystem for Linux) which provides a similarly powerful capability of running Linux operating systems and all of their compatible programs on Windows 10. It’s even better than Chrome OS’s version since you can have multiple Linux containers on Windows 10!
While I wouldn’t consider any Android apps as being professional level, the ability to run them on Chrome OS is another change that has greatly increased the capabilities of Chromebooks too. Sure, the user experience of running Android apps on Chrome OS is hit-or-miss and mostly miss, but this is often true of running Universal Windows Platform (store) apps on Windows 10X/S as well.
Windows 10X was poorly designed
First of all, we’ve got the Windows icon and two overlaying boxes in the center middle of the taskbar by default. They’re unlabeled, which is already a long-well-known usability problem (see Yes, Icons Need Text Labels), but if you’ve used Windows 10, you’ll at least recognize them from there. The really bad design part is the default placement in the bottom center of the screen. This is a bad placement for both a mouse/trackpad-based interface as well as a tablet interface and I’ll tell you why.
When interacting with a computer using a mouse or trackpad, where is the best location for buttons? It’s in the corner pixels. The reason for this is those corners are the easiest to access. Try this, close your eyes and scoot your mouse pointer in one diagonal direction. Let’s say, bottom left. Now click. If you’re on Windows, that probably opened the start menu. Making use of the corners as clickable hot spots means you cut out the need for one whole sensory organ (eyes) for interactivity. That’s a huge efficiency boost. This is why so many computing operating systems place important functions in the corners. It’s the most efficient location for buttons!
What about touch screen tablets? Windows 8 actually took touch screen tablet interaction into consideration very nicely. The best places for interactive elements on a tablet are at the edges, probably left and right sides, where your thumb will probably be assisting in holding the device. Placing interactive elements where your fingers can easily reach them, is a much smarter interface concept than placing them as far away as possible from where your fingers can reach them.
Windows 10X ignores all of this though and puts the start menu and task switcher buttons in the bottom middle of the screen. This placement makes for an inefficient design. But wait, there’s more…
Opening the Start menu on Windows 10X shows a box in the middle of the screen with icons representing the installed apps. This is fine and all. The apps are actually labeled this time so that users can easily learn the definitions of the icons and what they represent.
However, notice the position of the start menu icon and the task switcher icons in the taskbar has changed since we’ve launched two applications. Why is this a problem? Well, now that these buttons are in a different place, you’ll have to move the mouse or your finger to a different location on the screen. That means it’s impossible to build motor memory in order to efficiently access functions on Windows 10X.
When we launch even more programs, the Start menu icon is displaced even further from the center thus disconnecting the menu from the icon.
This screenshot illustrates the biggest problem with Windows 10X; it can’t install Windows programs from non-store locations. You CAN download them, but they won’t install. You can also see a new File Explorer here that again exhibits poor usability design in the row of unlabeled icons that many people won’t immediately understand.
Windows 10X didn’t seem to allow application windows to be actual windows either. You can only have a single maximized application visible at a time. At least that’s how it was on the preview build we tried.
If Windows 10X is indeed canceled, that’s probably a good decision. What happened to focusing on Windows 10? Remember when Windows 10 could run on smartphones too with a responsive UI that modified itself for different screen widths? That’s how things should have been. Windows 10 should be flexible enough to run on low-end devices that compete with Chromebooks, as well as dual-screen tablets, as well as whiteboard display screens, as well as smartphones. It’s a shame that Microsoft has seemingly abandoned that idea, at least long enough for their experimentation with Windows 10X. Hopefully, they can get back to that someday.