Microsoft Corp.’s dreadful Windows 8 operating system last week claimed its biggest casualty yet — it killed Windows 9. The next version of the software will instead be called Windows 10, in hopes that the extra digit will help us forget Microsoft’s most toxic flop since Windows Vista.
The new name may help a little; the new software should help a lot. I’ve been using a preview version that Microsoft released last week, and it’s pretty good. The worst traits of the Windows 8 user interface have been put right, allowing users to simply do their work. This marvelous feat has been mainly accomplished by restoring familiar features that disappeared when the Windows 8 team decided to get creative. But too much creativity can be deadly in an operating system.
After all, an OS is just the software that oversees the most basic functions of a PC, tablet, or smartphone. It’s supposed to manage the keyboard, monitor, printer and such, and interact with the apps that do the real work, like browsers and word processors. In short, a proper OS ought to shut up and stay out of the way. You should barely know it exists.
That’s generally how it is with our tablets and smartphones, and that’s why they’re so easy to use. We download regular updates to Apple Inc.’s iOS or Google Inc.’s Android. Sometimes they go badly wrong, like Apple’s iOS8 update a couple of weeks ago, which kept iPhone owners from placing calls. But usually it works fine. We get bug fixes and a few new features, while the core functions remain pretty much the same. We don’t have to relearn how to use our phones.
But we had to do just that with Windows 8. Microsoft tried to build a single operating system that would be suitable for tablet computers as well as PCs. The result was a nearly unusable mess. I tolerated it on my home PC for almost a year, before giving up and re-installing Windows 7. As of last month, Microsoft’s Windows XP, 13 years old and obsolete, has about twice as many users worldwide as Windows 8, according to the research firm Net Applications.
Windows 10, due to go on sale next spring at an as-yet-undetermined price, is Microsoft’s bid to make amends. The biggest mistakes of Windows 8 are at last dead and buried. It’s once again easy to find your way around, now that Microsoft has restored the old-school Start button.
Clicking Start displays a hybrid menu. On the left, you get a Windows 7-style listing of available programs; on the right, you see the rectangular app tiles that Microsoft introduced in Windows 8. “Modern” interface. You can deploy more tiles for instant access to all your favorite apps--the menu expands as you add more. The tiles for many Internet-connected programs, like Twitter, Facebook or e-mail, are “live,” and constantly update themselves. So a user can check all messaging and social network services by merely clicking Start.
Windows 8 apps used to take up the entire screen, making it hard to use several at the same time. At last, they’re nicely resizable, just like traditional Windows programs. In addition, we finally get multiple desktops, similar to the Spaces feature on Apple’s Mac computers. You can fill the desktop with work-related files and folders, create a second one for video editing and a third for online gaming, then hop instantly from one to another.
There are lots more welcome tweaks. For instance, when you open a new directory window, the first thing you see is a “Home” page that shows the folders you most frequently open and the files you last used. This will be a major time-saver. And remember the dreadful “charms” menu, where Windows 8 stashed many vital commands? It worked well on touchscreen machines, but was nearly unusable with a mouse and keyboard. Now these commands are accessed through the toolbar, and the charms menu has been banished for now, though Microsoft plans to resurrect it for touchscreen users.
With Windows 10, Microsoft is stepping back from the brink by stepping back in time. It is blending Windows 8’s worthwhile innovations into a user interface that feels familiar and comfortable. After its new software smell wears off, Windows 10 users will forget all about the operating system, which is exactly as it ought to be.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.