Microsoft has played Windows 11 up really nicely. The set is set to get the first glimpse of the next generation of Windows a few hours from now, something that Microsoft chief Satya Nadella has already called “one of the most significant updates of Windows of the past decade”. There is a supposed test build which is doing rounds, but the origins remain a mystery (and something you absolutely shouldn’t install), but may have just provided some hints into what may be on the way. There is a lot of conversation among users, about the expected new design, streamlining of multi-tasking and perhaps even swapping Skype for Microsoft Teams as the integration choice. Yet, for Microsoft, there is a lot more at stake, than just a new look.
Let us start with some numbers. And how many of you use Windows on your PCs. Turns out, as of May 2021 numbers by online research firm Netmarketshare, Windows has a 87.5% market share in the world of desktop operating systems, with Apple’s macOS just under 10%. In the wider world of all OSes including the mobile ones, Android leads the way with 41.42% as of May, followed by Windows at 30.86%. Within these numbers, there will be fragmentation between Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and even Windows 7 users still hold on to the good times. In March this year, Microsoft had said that Windows 10 had already clocked installs on 1 billion active devices globally, including PCs and Xbox console. You’d now be seeing how important Windows as a product is for Microsoft.
Microsoft has the important job of tying in the past with the future, as it unfolds the present. That’ll be first and foremost priority. In line with Microsoft’s larger focus at the time, Windows eventually evolved from a product that you’d pay for with every new release, to something that was more of a service. Always live, always updating and expected to be always evolving. That was the hope, and that was the plan with Windows 10. It has worked out fairly well, one would imagine, considering more than 1 billion PCs run it. It was in 2015 when Microsoft called Windows 10 as the last version of Windows. And all these years later, at the cusp of Windows 11 arriving on the scene and Microsoft having changed its mind about the OS, there is no way Microsoft should abandon the remaining part of that journey.
While Windows 10 upgrades, offered free for the most part allowed for quick update, the end of support for Windows 7 in early 2020 saw PC shipments on an upward trajectory through all quarters of 2019. That meant PCs saw a full year of growth in 2019, the first time since 2011, driven by businesses and individuals upgrading desktops and laptops. And after 2019 clocked a full year of growth, 2020 also saw a significant boost in shipments, also pushed by the coronavirus pandemic and with millions switching to work from home and needing machines to actually get work done. Research firm Canalys reported that PC shipments clocked 297 million units through 2020, which is 11% higher than 2019.
With these numbers for PC shipments being rather impressive for successive years, and 2021 expected to be on similar lines, no wonder Microsoft believes refreshing Windows right now would be a good business move. Whether it is new PCs sold, old users upgrading (even if for free) and investing in a Microsoft 365 subscription, would make a lot of sense in terms of revenue for Microsoft. More people are buying PCs than ever before, and people are spending more time on their PCs than ever before. The company said in May that they had seen a 75% year-on-year increase in the time users are spending on Windows 10. That really strengthens the business case, if ever Windows as a product line, needed one.
Then there is the threat from Google and Apple. Google’s Chrome OS powered Chromebooks have been fighting at the lower end of the pricing scale, where most of the volumes are, and where Microsoft and most OEM partners including HP, Acer and Lenovo, have invested heavily in. A refreshed Windows will only be good news, something that is streamlined more for the educational requirements that Chromebooks also attempt to tick off. And at the other end of the price band is the threat from Apple and the largest Mac line-up in a long time.
The timing is such, Windows 11 after all its testing, will likely roll out in Fall this year. That is when this year’s big macOS update, called macOS Monterey, will also be rolling out for Mac users. The annual macOS updates are rolled out for free for compatible Mac devices, and Apple usually keeps a really wide support band for this. And focus is to get people to spend on the services, including iCloud and Apple Music. With that as the backdrop, Microsoft may not be able to revert to a pre-Windows 10 era of charging for a Windows update.
Last but not least, the focus on developers. The Windows Store for apps and games, is also expected to receive an overhaul, in line with the company’s promise to app developers and creators, for a better app store experience on Windows PCs. “Our promise to you is this: we will create more opportunity for every Windows developer today and welcome every creator who is looking for the most innovative, new, open platform to build and distribute and monetize applications. We look forward to sharing more very soon,” Nadella had said during the keynote. At this time, not all apps are available for distribution on the Windows Store, including rival web browsers such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Vivaldi. That is just scraping the surface. A lot more needs to be done to help developers earn more revenue.
In the end, all the excitement and noise may continue to be about the visual changes that the next Windows update brings in, any new features and functionality and indeed when it’ll be available to customers to download on their PCs. But Windows plays a much larger role for Microsoft, and make no mistake, it remains very essential for their business. The undeniable platform advantage for Microsoft is that they have Windows 10 to build on. Which has been rock solid, for the most part.