While the major focus of Build 2014 has been on Windows 8.1 Update and Windows Phone 8.1, the keynote also included glimpses at the next major release of Windows. We know that it will include the much-discussed return of the Start menu, but what else was revealed?
Executive operating systems group vice president Terry Myerson said that future plans were being discussed at Build to maintain a tradition of ensuring developers had an idea of how the Windows platform was evolving. While we got to see some ideas in progress, there was very little indication of just when these versions might appear. As such, we still don't know whether these will appear in the next major version of Windows, which might reasonably be expected around October if Microsoft sticks to its plans for a full annual update cycle, or if they aren't going to appear until 2015 or later.
We've heard rumours of plans for the 2015 version, which has the internal codename of Threshold. However, some of the elements rumoured to be included in Threshold -- such as a unified code base for all Windows apps -- have already begun to appear today with the announcement of Universal Windows Apps.
The most obvious visual change revealed for upcoming versions will be the return of the Start Menu, albeit in jazzed-up form. This forms part of a more general repositioning of the Windows Modern interface.
With Windows 8, Microsoft insisted that the system was equally good for touchscreens and traditional mouse/keyboard interfaces, a position virtually no users agreed with. Windows 8.1 made some concessions to the existing customer base, Windows 8.1 Update makes a lot more, and by the next version of Windows we're essentially going to see the touch-centric start screen as a potential alternative, not the default everyone has to use. It's good that Microsoft has made the switch, but weird that it has taken so long to work out something everyone has been yelling at it ever since the Windows 8 betas: the Modern interface is annoying when you mostly want to work with existing Windows apps.
The other change reflecting that approach is that Modern apps will also be able to run in variable-size windows on the main desktop. "We are going all in with this desktop experience," Myerson said. "We are going to enable Universal Windows Applications to run in a window." So much for the no-chrome full-screen future we were assured would be widely adopted when Windows 8 came out.
Combine this with the fact that you can also pin them to the taskbar and there's really very little need to ever use the tiled Start Screen. While that option works well enough for tablets, there are far more desktop and laptop Windows 8 users than tablet users right now, so again it's a sensible choice.
Nonetheless, Microsoft still wants Windows on a broader range of devices. We saw demonstrations of Modern apps running both on an Intel Galileo board and migrated onto an Xbox One. Both will eventually form part of the Universal Windows Apps vision, though it's not an option most developers will be able to pursue for a while.
The final clue came in the promise that a future version of Windows aimed at the "Internet of Things" would be made available to manufacturers for $0 -- a big switch from current Windows licensing models. Indeed, Windows 8.1 or Windows Phone 8.1 can be licensed for any tablet or phone with a screen size smaller than 9 inches. That's a tacit acknowledgement that trying to charge PC-level fees on cheaper devices when you're the #3 player at best doesn't work. What we don't know, however, is whether that particular Windows for IoT release will include the full Windows kernel, or a cut-down subset.
Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Microsoft.