Windows 10 logo unofficial teal on dark grey backround

The “next generation of Windows”

Microsoft is gearing up to release a major Windows 10 update with a visual overhaul codenamed Sun Valley later this year. The Redmond firm is rumored to not only be refreshing the UI, but also bringing new Microsoft Store policies that will widen the breadth of apps that the store can house. While nothing in the way of new information was shared at Build, the firm’s annual developer conference, earlier this week, CEO Satya Nadella did tease that he was self-hosting bits of what will be the biggest update to the OS in a “decade”, adding that he was “incredibly excited about the next generation of Windows”.

Nadella’s comments seem to echo that of Panos Panay’s made during a fireside chat at the firm’s Ignite conference earlier this year where he hinted at being pumped about the “next generation of Windows”. The only difference back then was that Windows 10X – a true lightweight, next-generation OS – was still an offering that was expected to ship to consumers on new devices later in the year. However, with Windows 10X now seemingly cancelled, the bigger question arising here is whether the new generation of “Windows” – and not Windows 10 – that executives are hinting at is a possible rebranding of Windows itself.

Windows 10.1/11?

While the firm did say that Windows 10 was the last version of Windows a few months before the OS was released in 2015, there is speculation and even a compelling case from Windows Central’s Zac Bowden that the company should consider branding the upcoming release as Windows 11, moving away from the Windows 10 brand to signal the magnitude of the changes and a renewed focus on Windows.

Windows 10X main screen with flyouts

Windows 10X for reference

However, there are a few problems in doing that. Unlike the previous Windows releases, Microsoft no longer follows a three-year release cadence for Windows as the OS receives at least one major update every year (except for the releases in the past year which have been enablement packages). Additionally, the company recently announced that the OS was running on 1.3 billion active devices worldwide, an impressive stat – one that might become fragmented if the firm were to move on from the Windows 10 brand for a release that is nothing more than a version of Windows 10 itself.

And then there are enterprises, a vital customer base for the company, who are usually skeptical and/or slow to adopt newer Windows versions. With Sun Valley expected to bring consumer-facing improvements and changes that enterprise customers might not really appreciate and/or leverage, it gives them little incentive to move to “Windows 11”, even if it is a free upgrade.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella standing in front of a shelf with many things

Lastly, there is also the point of reading too much into the executives’ comments. With Windows 10 now being the only actively developed edition of the software, there might be no reason to explicitly term it Windows 10 when referring to the product. The “next generation of Windows” might simply mean a new generation of user experiences for Windows 10 – modern, consistent, and different.

And here is where the problem for enterprise customers running Windows 10 on the client begins. IT admins and companies might not want major Windows 10 changes – especially those that Sun Valley might introduce. A drastic refresh with consolidated settings, enhancements for touch-based navigation, and overall UI changes might warrant additional training. The changes might also lead to increased compatibility testing for legacy software and overall reliability. And that’s where the case for parallel Windows 10 releases comes into the picture.

Vanilla Windows 10 for enterprises, Sun Valley for consumers

Microsoft introduced the concept of Feature Experience Packs to deliver new features to the OS without full-blown OS updates. It is possible that the company will leverage this technique to bundle new UI “experiences” along with underlying OS-level tweaks to accommodate those changes. And here is how this very feature, coupled with the concept of enablement packages, could allow the company to light up new features for enterprises on-demand.

The firm could include the requisite underlying code for enabling Sun Valley components in the 21H2 update but enable it with a combination of an enablement package and a Feature Experience Pack for consumers. For enterprises, however, the company could offer the option to install just an Enterprise package that includes bug fixes, improvements, and more, without having to enable Sun Valley or its underlying bits. Here’s an example image with context on how this package-based system could work.

A chart with ideas for possible ways for enterprises to install Windows 10 updates

Limiting this functionality to enterprise and education SKUs offers those customers the option to delay – and potentially decline – the addition of consumer features aimed at different form factors, while enjoying platform-related improvements that allow for better updates and the like. Microsoft has promised to bring technologies built for Windows 10X to Windows 10, including the likes of seamless updates, app containers, and more. These features fit perfectly in the Enterprise packages, while touch/pen-based improvements in the UI and other features might be bundled only if required.

Adopting a package-based approach also negates the need to further create multiple SKUs or separate releases of the OS. This also makes it easier to push features aimed at consumers and prosumers quicker, while allowing enterprises with the technical prowess to manage updates to test and ascertain the need for those added capabilities. The firm could also choose to offer Pro for Workstation and Pro Education SKUs – which currently adhere to the same policies as that of Home and Pro – the option to accept or deny certain packages.

Support lifecycle and LTSC customers

Enterprises care about support, and that need not change. With Microsoft moving to a tick-tock style update in the past couple of years, business users can opt for H2 releases that offer 30 months of support as before and choose to install packages via services such as Windows Update for Business. Additionally, with tools such as Update Compliance and staggered rollouts within organizations, IT admins will be able to test and target deployments just as before.

Multiple bars showing the Windows 10 logo with the refresh icon

Similarly, LTSC releases can also be limited to just the Enterprise packs, allowing admins to choose between opting for the consumer side of the features or just continue receiving what is relevant to them without the hassle of having to re-train and adapt to new features that might affect users’ workflows.

Consumers, on the other hand, will be offered the latest and greatest code with their corresponding experience packs with each feature update. The Redmond company can choose to apply the same support lifecycle policies and automatically offer to upgrade versions that are reaching the end of support, an approach that gives users more control over updates.

Will Microsoft do it?

While it is anybody’s guess what Microsoft’s plans are with regards to the “next generation of Windows”, it is banal to say that a major update is on its way for Windows 10 which the firm is tight-lipped about. Though splitting updates between enterprise and consumer SKUs could end up introducing some complexities, the company’s efforts to containerize OS components and streamline the update process in Windows 10X might prove to be beneficial here.

Of course, there could be technical difficulties that outsiders might not be privy to. But my point is that not all users – especially enterprise customers – need to be forced to adapt to major changes, especially ones that appeal to consumers but do not make sense for businesses. The greater level of control over what features make it to those that care about it will go a long way with the firm’s biggest customers, avoiding the Windows 8-era brute force change.