Windows 10 isn’t just a step back to the desktop, it’s a step up

Wednesday's Windows event was the flashiest to grace Redmond in years. The company pulled a number of projects, like HoloLens, out of its skunk works in an effort to convince finicky geeks it isn’t out of ideas.

Whether this gambit was successful is hard to say (the Twittersphere seems impressed), but in a few weeks it will also be irrelevant. Microsoft’s problem has always been execution, not imagination. Kinect, Courier and even Windows 8.1 are examples of ideas getting ahead of reality.

Yet this event wasn’t entirely about concepts and prototypes. Alongside holograms and room-sized tablets, the company also displayed a number of improvements and innovations that could once again give Windows an edge. Practicality, not pizzazz, will win back the confidence Windows 8 lost.

We’ve got your feedback right here

The Windows 10 Technical Preview is only the latest in a long line of beta builds used to test out new editions, but its rollout has been different than those prior. Built-in feedback tools have helped users direct their concerns to the people in Redmond who can actually fix them.

It’s easy to see the results. At the event, we witnessed a refined Start Menu that works better with tablets, an easy way to switch between tablet and desktop mode, and a blending of the control panel and Metro settings menu that finally resolves a core conflict between the old-fashioned desktop and the modern Windows interface.

Harsh critics might say such changes have been too long in coming, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Still, these seemingly minor additions make a big difference in everyday use. Windows users spend way too much time navigating awkward menus in an attempt to live with the desktop and Metro side-by-side.

Windows 8 flopped not only because it failed to connect with tablet buyers, but also because it actively alienated desktop loyalists. Microsoft is determined to rectify that mistake with its new operating system, and it’s doing so by listening to the subtle tweaks hardcore users care about. HoloLens is cool, to be sure, but implementing a properly designed Start Menu is by far more important to Microsoft’s future in the world of consumer electronics.

Real innovation

Not everything that’s coming to Windows 10 is subtle. There’s also several all-new headline features that could very well earn Microsoft a title it’s not enjoyed for some time; innovator.

RelatedWindows 10 will have full-screen start menu and much more

Cortana is the spearhead of this effort. OK, sure, Siri has been around for a while, but Apple’s voice assistant has never come to the desktop. It’s also, as a result of that, more limited than Microsoft’s vision. Cortana aims to be a complete virtual personal assistant that can plan trips, dictate emails and alert you to foul whether. Users will be able to customize the assistant’s settings and it will learn over time to understand each user’s habits.

Microsoft isn’t developing Cortana in isolation from the rest of the operating system. It’s a core feature, one that will work with applications like the new Spartan Web browser, an important effort to streamline the online experience. While other companies, including Apple, heap feature after feature into browser releases, Redmond’s engineers have gone back to basics in hopes to creating a quicker, more intuitive package.

Related: Cortana will be your Windows’ digital assistant

Seem regressive? It would be if not for Cortana, the glue that holds it all together. The goal seems to be an all-new Web browsing experience that abandons add-ons, menus and bookmark lists for a new form of interface made simple by a digital assistant.

Windows everywhere

Speaking of integration, Microsoft’s universal apps deserve far more attention than they’re receiving. A true cross-platform experience is something that no other company has mastered. Both Apple and Google have decided to not even try, opting for cross-platform services that connect similar but not identical software in different operating systems.

Redmond’s approach is bolder, riskier, and likely what should’ve been tried from the start (instead of wasting time on the sorta-similar but not-quite-right Windows RT). The Photos app in Windows 10 will be technically the same on a 4-inch smartphone as on a 27-inch all-in-one, but its underlying design will let the app scale dynamically between devices.

Calendar, People and Maps do the same, and then there’s the 900-pound Gorilla of Microsoft software: Office. Word, Excel and PowerPoint will not only work across the spectrum of Windows 10 devices, they’ll be free with phones and tablets. Need to adjust a presentation while you’re on the bus? No problem!

Related: Check out the new Office apps for Windows Phone

We’re sure this is a difficult dance for the company’s engineers to manage, but just think – what if it works? What if you really could use the same app, with access to the same data, on any device you own? That might be enough to finally make a Windows Phone look appealing.

Building the platform

Almost everything that Microsoft said at its Windows 10 event sounded great. The original reveal in late 2014 was disappointing in some ways because it made the new OS feel like an awkward step back towards Windows 7. Now the company has outlined how the latest edition will be stepping into the future.

That’s not to say the problems are over, though. Far from it. In addition to nailing execution, Microsoft must find a way to make Window phones and tablets more appealing to consumers. The greatest strength of Apple’s OS X is arguably iOS; hundreds of millions of people already have an iPhone and love it, so integrating mobile into the Mac makes instant sense.

Microsoft, though, has no such base of loyal mobile enthusiasts, and that potentially makes the appeal of some new features less interesting. Who cares about improving the Start Menu’s usefulness with tablets if no one uses a Windows tablet in the first place?

Fixing that problem is the next piece of the puzzle that must be placed, and Windows 10 won’t entirely come together until it’s explained. For now, though, the company has at least crushed our concerns that the new Windows would be a product of fear and regressive design. There’s true innovation here, and it could result in the biggest upgrade to the desktop computer since Windows XP.