Windows 10X may be one of Microsoft’s biggest bets this year

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2021 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Microsoft with the launch of Windows 10X, a new Windows-based OS that will should make its debut on Chromebook-like devices later this Spring. Windows 10X was initially expected to ship first on dual-screen PCs like Microsoft’s Surface Neo, but this device has now been delayed after Panos Panay, the new head of both Windows client and hardware announced a new focus on single-screen devices for Windows 10X last year.

“With Windows 10X, we designed for flexibility, and that flexibility has enabled us to pivot our focus toward single-screen Windows 10X devices that leverage the power of the cloud to help our customers work, learn and play in new ways. These single-screen devices will be the first expression of Windows 10X that we deliver to our customers, and we will continue to look for the right moment, in conjunction with our OEM partners, to bring dual-screen devices to market,” Panay wrote back in May 2020.

Microsoft has remained pretty quiet about Windows 10X since then, but the company is still testing the new OS internally. However, we learned a bit more information about Windows 10X through reports from Windows Central’s Zac Bowden and ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, who painted Windows 10X as Microsoft’s take on Chrome OS. At launch, the OS will reportedly focus on web apps, with the ability for customers to stream Win32 apps until these legacy apps can run securely in containers.

The Chromebooks threat

If it took years for Chrome OS and Chromebooks to be taken seriously, and Microsoft itself ran a series of ads (the infamous “Scroogled” campaign) to mock these devices during the Ballmer era. It was pretty easy to dismiss Chrome OS as a glorified web browser back in the day, but Chromebooks now supports Android apps, Linux apps, as well as virtualized Windows apps thanks to Parallels Desktop for Chromebook Enterprise.

Chromebooks have continued to enjoy real momentum in the US Education market, and despite Microsoft trying new things like Windows 10 in S Mode, Chromebooks remain cheaper and easier to manage for schools. That’s why Microsoft is now repurposing Windows 10X as a Chrome OS alternative, meaning a lightweight version of Windows that can ship on low cost devices that are easy to manage for IT Pros.

That’s a stark departure from the initial Windows 10X presentation we saw when the Microsoft unveiled its Surface Neo back in 2019, though the company still isn’t saying explicitly that Windows 10X is for Chromebook-like devices. Again, the company has remained pretty quiet about Windows 10X since Panos Panay last mentioned it in May, but make no mistake, Windows 10X could be one of Microsoft’s biggest bets this year.

Moving away from legacy Windows components

We all remember the flashy presentation of Windows 10X on the Surface Neo, when the OS looked like something designed from the ground up for dual screen devices. Microsoft followed up by releasing a Windows 10X emulator in early 2020, and our own Cody went hands-on with it.

Windows 10X is based on Windows Core OS, a new modular version of Windows 10 stripped from all the legacy Windows components that have no reason to exist on new form factors. Windows Core OS already powers Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headset, and Windows 10X is going to be a new expression of it for mobile PCs.

With this new OS, Microsoft will abandon various legacy components such as the Control Panel or the Windows File Explorer, making the OS lighter and easier to update over time. Microsoft is aiming to eliminate everything that can make using a Windows 10 PC cumbersome, and get rid of all the annoyances that Google highlighted in an excellent ad for Chromebooks years ago. This ad was pretty much Google’s version of the “It just works” line from the late Steve Jobs.

Windows 10X will be quite different from Windows 10 on ARM, which is Windows 10 as we know it running on PCs with ARM processors. As it turned out, these PCs are not easier to use than regular Intel-based PCs, it’s actually quite the contrary due to the persisting compatibility issues with legacy Windows apps and drivers. Windows 10X also won’t be able to run legacy Win32 apps natively at launch, though Microsoft is working on a new container technology to make these apps run securely on Windows 10X devices.

If the first Windows 10X mobile devices are expected to use Intel processors instead of ARM-based chips, the OS should run better on low-cost hardware compared to regular Windows 10 thanks to the absence of legacy components. The OS will also be secure by default, just like Chrome OS, and Microsoft has also streamlined the process of installing OS updates, something that Windows users have been complaining about for years.

Enterprise first, Consumers next?

After seeing the flop of Windows RT and Windows 10 in S mode, it’s safe to say that many enthusiasts are wondering if Windows 10X could be another ill-fated initiative from Microsoft. The “Windows 10X” name itself maybe confusing as even though this is going to be a Windows based OS, Windows 10X users won’t be able to install their favorite Windows apps from the get-go.

However, Microsoft may avoid another Windows RT debacle as the first Windows 10X devices will apparently target enterprise/education users interested in a Chrome OS alternative that supports Azure AD accounts. According to Windows Central’s Zac Bowden, Windows 10X devices for consumers will come at a later point.

It’s still unclear if Microsoft will allow Windows Insiders to test Windows 10X and share their feedback on it ahead of its release. Again, the OS will make its debut on new devices for Enterprise and Education customers, and it’s likely not something that Windows enthusiasts will be able to install on their machines. However, some Windows 10X features such as the redesigned Action Center and File Explorer could eventually make their way to the regular Windows 10, which is also expected to receive a big design update codenamed “Sun Valley” later this year.

There’s probably some room on the market for a Chrome OS alternative from Microsoft, though Google has a clear head start with the first Chromebooks being released 10 years ago. Do you think Windows 10X could be too little to late, like Windows Phone was on the smartphone market? Let us know in the comments below.