What’s in a name? Or, rather, what’s in a number? When Microsoft unveiled Windows 10 to the world back in 2014, arguably the feature that got the most press wasn’t the supposed ‘return’ of the Start button, nor the phasing back of Metro apps so open maligned by tech journalists throughout Windows 8’s existence. No, it was actually the platform’s name. Why Windows 10? What had happened to Windows 9? Can the big bods at Microsoft not count?
Even today, with 14 million machines having already made the upgrade to the OS (thanks, in part, to a neat little trick that lets people jump the queue, internet memes poking fun at the platform’s name are doing the rounds. It’s yet another stick to whack Microsoft around the back of the head with – one that arguably runs close to whipping up as much of a storm as the Redmond giant’s decision to call its latest console Xbox One.
However, for all the jesting, having played with Windows 10 over the course of the weekend, I have to say that the platform’s name may be one of its most important features. For a company that’s perceived to have suffered an almost disastrous run ever since Windows 8 rolled out in late 2012, the launch of its successor is a potentially pivotal moment, and the Windows 10 moniker is – quite literally – all about putting some distance between Microsoft’s new OS and the OS that is perceived to have done the company so much damage.
It’s essentially the tech industry equivalent of the Royal Family’s decision to cut all ties with the German-centred House of Hanover and rebrand itself the House of Windsor during the First World War. Rightly or wrongly, Windows 8 is seen as being utterly toxic, and though theories regarding just why the Windows 9 moniker was passed over vary, my money would be on Microsoft having engaged some fairly intensive focus testing during the development of its successor and determining that it needed to put clear daylight between the two versions if it was to regain public trust and enthusiasm.
Perhaps the most telling evidence in regards to this is unearthed when you actually look at Microsoft’s internal version number for the OS. The detested Windows Vista, for instance, was in reality Windows version 6.0, with Windows 7 – the most popular version of Microsoft’s OS on the planet as things stand, and heralded by many as rescuing the platform from near irrelevance – was actually Vista’s especially close cousin, branded internally as Windows version 6.1. Though similar superficially and, actually, when you got down to the bare bones of the platform as well, to the world outside, the name Windows 7 allowed Microsoft to pitch it as a major departure from Windows Vista.
I’d suggest that that’s exactly the same trick that’s being pulled here with Windows 10. Internally, Windows 8 was actually Windows version 6.2, with Windows 8.1 – the fairly extensive upgrade rolled out for free in 2013 – serving as version 6.3. Whereas in the real world Windows 10 seems like a country mile away from both 8 and 8.1, in reality it’s actually Windows version 6.4. From Vista to Windows 10, for Microsoft it’s all essentially Windows version 6, with the platform evolving over time as every relevant operating system does. Of course, it doesn’t want us, the consumers, to see it that way.
It would be unfair, actually, to suggest that Windows 10 doesn’t boast some fairly hefty upgrades from Windows 8, but what’s been overlooked by many is the fact that many (though definitely not all) of these improvements were actually rolled out two years ago with Windows 8.1, or actually already existed on day one of Windows 8.
Think the Start button has just made its comeback? Well it actually made its reappearance two years ago in Windows 8.1. Thankful Microsoft has brought back the Start menu with Windows 10? Well, to tell the truth, the Start menu never went anywhere in the first place – the screen with all the Metro tiles on was always the Start menu. Microsoft had just made it bigger, and confused 99 percent of the tech press in the process.
What we have with Windows 10, therefore, is a happy compromise between where the company wanted to head with Windows 8 – a unified OS that runs across multiple forms of hardware – and the familiar look and feel of Windows 7. Even if the Start button and menu we see today in Windows 10 isn’t actually all too different from what came before, the perception within the public and press is that it’s a major shift back to the set up people liked. Likewise, the firm’s new browser, Edge, comes with features not available on Internet Explorer (and, indeed, is built from an entirely different code base) and is a reaction both to Chrome’s dominance of the browser scene and the negative associations IE has been saddled with for some time. Almost every new feature or refinement within Windows 10 seems to have come about as a reaction to the criticisms levelled at Windows 8, even if the two operating systems are far closer relations than you might think.
The launch of Cortana – Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s voice controlled Siri – is all about changing perceptions, as well. Though Windows Phone trails iOS in terms of number of users by some distance, reactions to Cortana on Microsoft’s mobile OS have broadly been positive, and by rolling it out on Windows 10 as the operating system’s default search tool (replacing the comparatively bland search tool hidden within Windows 8’s old charms menu), that platform has gained a seemingly bleeding edge feature.
The decision to brand the OS as Windows 10 is, perhaps, the ultimate reflection of all of that. Windows 8 was never the failure the press pitched it as, and it has comfortably out shipped and out sold the latest versions of Apple’s OSX throughout its lifetime, but it had nevertheless become something of an industry in-joke – a go to reference point for folk looking to ridicule Microsoft’s efforts post Bill Gates. By skipping Windows 9 entirely, Microsoft has acknowledged the view that Windows 8 simply didn’t work for the masses, and it wants to draw a line in the sand and move on.
Whether or not it’s wise to run one of the richest, most influential companies in the world based on the whims of a vocal base of users and the American tech press is a question for another day, but one thing no-one can accuse Microsoft of being is a company that doesn’t listen to its critics. It may have taken the might of Taylor Swift to back track on Apple Music, but with Windows 10, Microsoft is attempting to put the humble user – the guy or girl on the street without millions of Twitter followers behind them – first.