Ever since Windows 8 debuted in October 2012, PC users have been searching for ways to improve Microsoft’s struggling OS. The Redmond, Wash.-based company sent out its first wave of major Windows 8 updates through Windows 8.1, which brought some minor enhancements when it premiered a year after Windows 8. But while the OS looks and feels nothing like its previous iterations, the next major overhaul could bring Windows back to its design roots. Microsoft may still be months away from announcing what could be Windows 9, but here’s a look at what we think we know so far.
Microsoft brought back the Start button with Windows 8.1–but we have yet to see the familiar Windows Start menu. This will supposedly change with the next iteration of Windows. Sources have reportedly told Windows blogger Paul Thurrott that the traditional Windows Start menu will return. The feature is said to be optional, meaning that if you’re already accustomed to the Windows 8 “Modern UI” you won’t have to use it. It’s also possible that the Start menu functionality will only be compatible with product versions that support the desktop mode. If you don’t feel like waiting for Windows 9, there are several third-party apps that mirror the Start menu quite accurately, including Stardock Start 8 ($5) and Classic Shell.
Microsoft is likely to rebrand the next major version of its desktop PC software as Windows 9 rather than Windows 8.2, according to Thurrott. This is largely because the company wants to distance itself from the controversy surrounding Windows 8 following its launch in Oct. 2012, sources have reportedly told the blogger.
The most prominent rumor surrounding the next version of Windows is its codename: Threshold. But the title is more than just an internal reference point– it’s a callback to one of Microsoft’s biggest franchises. Microsoft borrows this name from the planet around which the first halo ring orbited in the original “Halo” game, as Windows guru Mary Jo Foley reports. The Threshold update will reportedly include updates to three major platforms: the Xbox One, Windows and Windows Phone. Thus, the codename refers to the “wave” of operating systems we’ll see across Windows-based phones, laptops, tablets and Xbox gaming consoles. Part of this unification includes a singular app store that will house applications for all of its operating systems, according to Foley.
In the next version of Windows, you may be able to run Metro apps in floating windows on the desktop. You can already do this today with third-party tools such as Modern Mix, but this functionality could be built into the OS soon enough. As is the case with the Windows Start Menu, Thurrott says this feature may also be optional.
In addition to possibly being able to run Metro apps on your desktop, the next version of Windows may bring some favorable changes to the tiled UI. Thurrott reports that “maturing and fixing” this interface will be a “major focus of Threshold,” although there’s no telling exactly what changes are coming.
Despite Microsoft’s Julie Larson- Green saying that the company won’t “have three” versions of Windows in the future, there’s a chance we’ll see three different SKUs for the next Windows iteration. Foley reports that while Microsoft has a vision for a singular Windows core, there will still be multiple versions of the software. Sources have reportedly told the ZDNet columnist that there will be three main SKUs: a “modern” consumer version, a traditional PC iteration and an enterprise SKU.
The modern SKU is likely to appear on ARM-based Windows tablets and PCs, and could be part of a hybrid Windows Phone/Windows RT OS that Microsoft is rumored to be working on. The consumer SKU would target traditional PCs and will include a desktop mode like the current iteration of Windows 8.1, while the Enterprise SKU could end up being for volume licenses only. This Enterprise version would come with standard features targeted at businesses, including support for group policy and device management.
Microsoft is expected to deliver an update to Windows 8.1 as early as Spring 2014, but we probably won’t see the next full version of Windows until Spring 2015. It was originally believed that a new version of Windows could launch in Fall 2014, but Foley writes that a trustworthy source says that seems “less and less likely.” Newer reports suggest that Windows 9 will be launching in April 2015, although there’s no confirmation just yet.
While Microsoft could be prepping Windows “Threshold” for 2015, the company is likely to release the Windows 8.1 update alongside the rumored Windows “Blue” update in Spring 2014–which would align closely with Microsoft’s Build conference scheduled for April 2.
We’ll update this article accordingly as more information surfaces.