2020 should be a big year for Microsoft. The program included dual-screen PCs and a next-generation operating system called Windows 10X. But then the pandemic hit the PC industry hard.
Microsoft has focused its scope on the things that matter most during a global pandemic. That’s Microsoft Teams, Microsoft 365, and affordable Surface devices like the Surface Laptop Go.
You can rightly assume that Windows had another hot year. This is all the more true in a year in which Apple redesigned MacOS so visually with Big Sur and Microsoft's twice-yearly Windows 10 updates in 2020 instead focused on patching minor bugs and features.
But 2021 has the potential to be a huge year for Microsoft and Windows. There are many great things ahead of us – and finally, there are some important reasons to be excited about the future of Windows.
Panay at the helm
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Corporate restructuring is hardly a cause for alarm. Mostly. However, when it comes to a charismatic leader like Panos Panay, there is more to the story.
Until recently, Windows and Surface were always two separate departments at Microsoft. These two teams had different leaders with two very different approaches to their products. As the leader in adventurous and consumer-centric Surface products, Panay felt like the opposite of the more conservative Windows leadership.
In February 2020 Microsoft hired Panay to lead a new team that encompasses both areas and is known as "Devices + Windows".
With Panay at the top, Windows finally has a chance to get exciting again. While a lot of the changes are still in the works, some things are already in place thanks to some of the steps he started.
Panay and his team made some big behind-the-scenes changes to Windows in the New Year. The Insider Beta program has moved from its older "rings" to newer "channels". For the most part, it now gives us the opportunity to test code in progress by Microsoft, rather than new features that are only tied to upcoming versions of Windows.
Microsoft has even introduced a "Windows Feature Experience Pack" that makes Windows a little more modular. Microsoft can use it to pass new Windows functions on to Insiders without having to download a full operating system update.
That may sound like small changes, but the foundation for an exciting year 2021 is being laid. Panay is now in charge, and he seems to be taking his enthusiastic risk to ensure Windows loses its clumsy reputation.
Windows will finally get a new look
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According to most rumors, 2021 seems to be the year Microsoft will finally invest in Windows again, especially in the fall and holiday season.
Things that haven't changed significantly since Windows 10 was released, be it the Start menu, the taskbar, the Action Center, or the File Explorer. If the reports are true, those things you look at every day in Windows are getting a new, more modern look.
While a smaller Windows update similar to this year's update from October 2020 will be available in spring 2021, Windows 10 will receive the largest update to date in autumn. Rumor has it that this update is codenamed "Cobalt" and will bring some significant design updates codenamed "Sun Valley".
In particular, Microsoft hopes Sun Valley will modernize Windows to bring it up to speed with other platforms like MacOS, Chrome OS, and iPadOS. All of these operating systems have seen major design changes while Windows 10 largely stayed the same. We saw some of these work in Windows in early 2020 with Windows 10X, but it has been lagging since then (more on that later).
For you and me, however, Sun Valley should mean that the fall release of Windows 10 will be exciting next year. Microsoft is known for 2-in-1 tablets and Surface tablets, and the company will finally be making changes that match the software with the hardware. The Start menu and Action Center could finally get more touch-friendly, we could see a cleaner experience in tablet mode, and a lot more.
Windows is getting the new look it urgently needs.
Fixed the app problem
Some of the other changes made to Windows in 2021 also go beyond a repainting. Windows' app issue has been well documented over the past few years, and Microsoft may have two major changes up its sleeve.
Initially, Microsoft plans to bring Android apps to Windows. This has been in the works for some time, but it would go a long way in addressing the lack of mobile apps in the Microsoft ecosystem.
While Microsoft has tried in the past (and even now with Progressive Web Apps) to get developers onto the universal Windows platform, it wasn't nearly as popular on iOS or MacOS as Apple's App Store. Rumor has it that the solution could be to finally bring Google Android apps to the Microsoft Store.
According to Windows Central, Microsoft's internal "Project Latte" is a new software solution that allows app developers to bring Android apps to Windows without code changes. It's apparently in the works for the next year and could run for Linux with some tweaks to the Windows subsystem (Android is a Linux-based mobile operating system). Developers would only have to port their apps as an MSIX file in the store, although it is not sure how apps that require Google Play Services will work.
That way, Microsoft could open the floodgates for developers. Android developers wouldn't have to recode their apps to work on Windows. This means that Windows tablets like Surface Go 2 can get exciting again and have access to a new library of Android apps, not just Windows apps. The problem of the app gap in Windows could finally be solved in 2021.
But it doesn't end there. When Microsoft released the Surface Pro X, support for 64-bit applications was missing in Windows 10 on ARM. It only runs 32-bit apps that many developers no longer use code for. Well, Microsoft is finally working on 64-bit apps for Windows 10 on ARM, opening up opportunities to make the Surface Pro X a more usable device for most users.
Things like Photoshop or even design and engineering programs can finally work on the device powered by Microsoft's custom ARM chip, the SQ2. This is the same thing Apple did with its M1 Macs – tweak it and make sure all of the apps can run on your devices.
Windows 10X will restart
In addition to the Surface Duo, Microsoft introduced Windows 10X and a dual-screen PC called Surface Neo at the end of 2019. The Duo and Neo should be released this year along with dual-screen Windows PCs from Dell and other laptop manufacturers.
The pandemic changed that plan. Instead, Windows 10X will restart in 2021.
Rumor has it that two different Windows flavors could be seen in 2021. You'll see a reborn Windows 10X preinstalled only on new laptops and devices sold by Microsoft and its partners. Then there are the regular Windows 10 versions for all existing laptops and tablets.
This relaunched version of Windows 10X was designed not only for dual-screen devices, as Microsoft originally intended, but also for lightweight PCs. Similar to ChromeOS for cheap and affordable Chromebooks as well as for flagships like the Pixelbook Go or the Pixelbook.
Windows 10X does not support classic Windows 32-bit or 64-bit apps. Instead, it's lightweight and depends on the Microsoft Store. According to Windows Central, Microsoft is planning a new "Cloud PC" service to address this problem.
It helps users with low-end and budget PCs stream apps from the internet and Microsoft's servers to their PC. This is definitely new and paves the way for all kinds of new Windows 10X devices and lower-priced PCs. In an era of iPads, this could help Windows gain ground. You suddenly no longer need a powerful PC to run certain apps. You can stream this app over the cloud just like you would a Netflix series.
Bring the sunshine
It seems certain that 2021 will be a big year for Microsoft. While most of the things discussed here are just rumors, there is much hope that it will all be true.
Not only will we see Windows 10 get a major design overhaul that is badly needed, but we'll also see a new version of Windows 10X and new Windows devices designed to be affordable.
These are things we could really have used in 2020 and Microsoft is listening carefully to what is wanted and needed by the Windows community and beyond.