SAN FRANCISCO _ Microsoft conceded today that it’s time for a do-over of its flagship Windows operating system and showed a new version that’s supposed to be easier to learn and less jarring than the current Windows 8.
There are so many changes being made to the platform that the company decided to skip ahead and call its new software Windows 10, said Terry Myerson, head of the operating-systems group.
“Windows 10 represents the first step of a whole new generation of Windows,” he said during a small unveiling event held for press and analysts in San Francisco Tuesday morning.
The software is also a chance for Microsoft to redeem itself with business customers who felt abandoned by its pursuit of tablet-loving consumers with Windows 8. Microsoft also needs to win back PC makers who are increasingly using Google operating-systems on their low-end laptops and tablets.
A free preview version of Windows 10 is being made available starting Wednesday through the company’s “Windows Insider” program. But Myerson cautioned that it’s still a work in progress that’s intended to give business users in particular a chance to start testing it and providing feedback.
Microsoft will give “insiders” access to newer versions as the software evolves and then broadly release a more polished version in mid 2015.
“Windows 10 will be our most open, collaborative OS project ever,” Myerson said.
Myerson said the company is now “starting the dialogue” with enterprise customers. He noted that they’re still buying PCs – 1.5 billion people now use Windows PCs and business sales grew 14 percent in the first half of the year.
Myerson and Joe Belfiore, a vice president leading the interface redesign, listed priorities for business users that they’re trying to address. Details about consumer features will be released later.
The first is that the operating system be “familiar” whether users are coming from Windows 7 or Windows 8 so they can immediately be productive. The second priority is “modern management” of a fleet of computers.
Belfiore – who is known for the “start” button first introduced on Windows 95 – demonstrated a new start menu that surfaces in the lower left corner, similar to past versions of Windows. As expected, it combines a traditional list of “most used” programs and files, a search box and a panel populated with Windows 8 style “live tiles.”
Customers like the tiles and they are customizable, Belfiore said. The tiles can be made taller or wider, changing the height and width of the start menu.
“It gives the familiarity of Windows 7 with some of the new benefits that exist in Windows 8,” he said.
Belfiore noted how the menu combines traditional Win32 apps with apps built for Windows 8 and Windows Phone and distributed through Microsoft’s app store.
A particularly welcome change will come in how launching an app affects the desktop. In Windows 8, when you launch a “modern” app it switches the environment to the modern interface, even if you had been working in a traditional desktop or vice versa. Belfiore said this disorienting effect won’t happen in Windows 10; apps launch in a window on the desktop, without changing the desktop mode.
“We don’t want that duality,” he said, adding that “regardless of how an app was written it “works the way you expect.”
Belfiore also demonstrated Windows 10’s improved handling of multiple desktops on a single screen, including more control over “snapping” these windowed panels into different locations on the desktop. The “alt-tab” control has been updated to scroll through open windows. This isn’t earth-shaking but it shows how Microsoft has to develop the software for a wide range of users, from novices to advanced users, he said.
At the far end of this spectrum are people who may appreciate improvements to using the “command prompt” capability, which Belfiore demonstrated.
It took half an hour before touch controls were mentioned at Tuesday’s event, in contrast to the Windows 8 emphasis on touchscreens and a new “charms” control menu that disappeared until summoned with a gesture or a click.
Instead of designing first for touchscreens, Windows 10 is using touch to extend the mouse-and-keyboard experience ‘so it feels natural,” Belfiore said.
“I expect that charms bar to change,” he added.
At the same time, Microsoft still sees a lot of potential in “two in one” devices that work as both a tablet and a traditional laptop.
The “Windows 8 focus on touch was trying to salute the idea that people would be productive on these touch devices but we didn’t quite get it right,” Belfiore said.
Myerson declined to say anything about what Microsoft will charge for the finished product and whether it will be sold differently, such as through a subscription plan like Microsoft’s Office 365 productivity suite.
Microsoft usually takes around three years to develop a new operating system but it’s trying to accelerate the process and move beyond Windows 8 as quickly as possible.
Although Microsoft executives insist that customers using touch-screen PCs are generally happy with Windows 8, and PC sales are starting to rebound during its reign, the software was immediately controversial upon its 2012 release.
At the time of its development, Microsoft was under intense pressure for missing the rise of tablets spurred by the iPad with some questioning whether the company had lost its grip on personal computing.
So Windows 8 introduced a new interface and controls designed largely to make Windows work better on tablets and other touchscreen devices.
But the system could be frustrating to people who continued to primarily control their computers with mice and keyboards. Many users also missed the traditional start menu and never embraced Microsoft’s concept of the entire desktop becoming a “start” menu filled with tile-shaped buttons to launch programs.
Within a year Microsoft eased up and released an overhaul – Windows 8.1 – that gave users more control and enabled them to configure their computers to start in traditional “Windows 7” mode.
This happened amid a broader shakeup at Microsoft which was reorganizing itself under a new “One Microsoft” mantra and attempting to become leaner, faster and more relevant in the era of mobile, continuously connected computing.
Myerson was moved last summer from the Windows Phone group to head a reorganized operating system division. Windows 8 was developed under the leadership of now-retired Steven Sinofsky, who had taken the mantle from now-retired Jim Allchin after struggles with Windows Vista.
Like his predecessors, Myerson is fighting a three-headed beast, trying to produce a fresh and compelling new operating system that’s still predictable for business users while simultaneously taking on internal engineering and management challenges.
Windows 10 is intended to represent a new, unified approach to operating-system development. The software is designed as a common platform for devices ranging from phones to wall-sized displays, making it more efficient for Microsoft to produce and easier for developers to write applications for different kinds of hardware.
Asked for more explanation of the name and why the jump from 8 to 10, Myerson and Belfiore first related the kids’ joke about how “seven ate nine” but then gave a more serious answer.
“When you see the product in its fullness I think you’ll agree with us it’s a more appropriate name for the breadth of the product family that’s coming,” Myerson said.
“It was a name that resonated best for what we will deliver,” he added.