When Apple announced the iPad Pro would continue to run iPad OS, while Macs run macOS, some pundits criticized the decision. Microsoft’s failed string of lightweight Windows alternatives — which now reportedly includes Windows 10X — ought to put paid to the idea that launching a lightweight version of Windows under the same “Windows” brand could ever make sense.
Microsoft didn’t share enough about Windows 10X for us to be completely certain what it was, but a few specific features were known. Windows 10X wouldn’t run Win32 apps at first (containerized support was supposedly intended for a post-launch update), and it would be a simplified, lightweight version of Windows 10 intended to compete in the Chromebook market. Microsoft is rumored to have canceled the OS because the various PC OEMs preferred the flexibility of standard Windows 10 compared with the limited capabilities of Windows 10X.
This is not a new problem. When Microsoft launched its original Surface products, one of them was an ARM device, the Surface RT, built around Nvidia’s Tegra 3. The Surface RT ran Windows RT, an ARM variant of Windows 8. The Surface RT had several flaws, but the most significant, at least as far as consumers were concerned, was the lack of x86 compatibility. People bought Windows RT expecting to be able to run x86 Windows programs. When they couldn’t, they returned it in droves.
Microsoft has never entirely given up on the idea of a lightweight version of Windows. Several years later, it tried a different approach. Windows 10 S was intended to be a restricted version of Windows 10 that would appeal to the education market. Like Windows RT, it couldn’t run Win32 x86 applications, only apps downloaded from the Microsoft Store (albeit for different reasons). Coverage of Windows 10 S almost always focused on its limitations rather than what Microsoft hoped to do with it. Microsoft eventually declared it would phase out Windows 10 S, citing customer confusion, in favor of an “S Mode” that would similarly restrict applications but otherwise be part of Windows 10. Whatever work was done on Windows 10X is now expected to be folded into Windows 10 as well.
Every time Microsoft attempts to launch a version of Windows that doesn’t provide the features it has trained Windows users to expect, customers become confused. I’m not sure if this was as much a problem for Windows Mobile or Windows Phone — it may be that the size difference between a smartphone and a desktop computer helped users intuit that the two products were not compatible. It has been a problem for every device category since Windows RT. The handful of ARM systems you can buy running Windows today ship with x86 available via emulation.
Microsoft has a really fundamental problem. It has obviously wanted to offer a more narrowly targeted product to appeal to a handful of markets, but it has no way to present such systems as a better value than standard Windows when the breadth and depth of the Windows ecosystem has always been marketed as the operating system’s biggest strength. Unlike Apple or Google, Microsoft spent decades telling customers that a Windows computer was a Windows computer. “Work on the same files at work or home!” was a real selling point for Windows PCs in the early 1990s.
The “Windows” brand comes with tremendous name recognition, but it also carries the weight of several decades worth of customer expectations. There’s a catch-22 in all of this: The best way for Microsoft to convince OEMs and customers that Windows 10X is a distinct and better product from Windows 10 for specific markets is to create new features and capabilities unique to the OS. The more features and unique capabilities Microsoft creates for Windows 10X, however, the less like Windows 10 it will be, and the less customers may want it. The more customers expect support for legacy Windows features and capabilities, the more the new product must resemble the original.
Microsoft maintains a handful of differences between each of its OS SKUs, but the company spent decades unifying the Windows codebase behind the scenes. Windows 10 Education already exists, so any Windows 10X products also designed for education would have needed to copy its education-specific features and integrate them into the Windows 10X design scheme. Microsoft may have decided it would be easier to offer some subset of Windows 10X options in a future update to either Windows 10 or Windows 10 Education, specifically.
The Multi-OS Branding Model Looks to Be Winning
There are too many differences between Google, Microsoft, and Apple to cleanly compare their OS and device development strategies, but the benefit of several decades of time at least gives us a meaningful window over which to compare their performance. Google and Apple have both created new operating systems to serve new markets — Google with Android and ChromeOS, Apple with macOS / iOS / iPadOS (though the distinction between the latter two is small). Microsoft has sought to extend its Windows desktop brand into other markets.
Of the three, Microsoft has enjoyed by far the least success in creating new markets for its operating systems. Its efforts to create differentiated products around low-power ARM devices failed in 2012 and is a very modest success, at best, in 2021. Windows 10 S confused customers. Windows 10X apparently wasn’t flexible enough for OEM tastes compared with Windows 10, which is to say, it wasn’t enough like Windows 10. Apple and Google have had far more success managing different customer expectations across two operating system families than Microsoft has.
Apple, of course, may one day offer a tablet with macOS — we’re scarcely trying to say the company won’t. But we’d be surprised if Apple called it an iPad. Cupertino seems more likely to bridge the compatibility gap by emphasizing how Macs with Apple silicon can run iOS and macOS apps on the same system than in bringing the expanded ecosystem features to the iPad. Google has had more luck with fewer headaches maintaining Android and ChromeOS as different projects than Microsoft has had in debuting a single alternate flavor of their existing OS with a more restrictive software distribution mode activated by default. Obviously, there will always be an internal conversation over whether a new product should debut a new brand name or link back to an old one. Nine years after the launch of Windows RT, it’s hard to argue in favor of saddling future projects with the Windows brand.
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