For months, there have been hints. Microsoft watchers like Mary J. Foley, Zac Bowden, and Tom Warren have been talking about an upcoming "big update" for at least twelve months. Now, Microsoft announced that on June 24th, 2021 at 11 am EST they will provide more details about their upcoming "next generation of Windows". But should we expect a completely new OS?
For the past five and a half years, we at Juriba have documented Microsoft's Windows 10 Release and End-of-Life Dates and analyzed any Service Channel updates. For example, in 2019 we wrote about the fact that Microsoft made 19H2 a cumulative update and decoupled new features from its bi-annual Feature Updates starting with its 20H1 release. While we have to wait for June 24th, 2021 for the official announcements, I wanted to quickly do a write-up of what we actually know and put things in perspective.
Spoiler alert: Don't panic (yet).
Windows 11? Sun Valley? Here Is What We Know So Far
Microsoft has hinted much (undoubtedly to create a huge rumor-mill-generated buzz which is always a very successful marketing move for them) but hasn't provided much substantial evidence to support any direction of thinking being traded on Twitter right now.
Will Microsoft Announce Windows 11?
Lots of people got carried away and commented that the animated logo with the missing horizontal bar of the window makes the light falling through look like an "11" which immediately led to speculations that Microsoft is going to announce Windows 11 rather than a new feature update. This only seems confirmed by the unusual (for Microsoft) start time of 11 am EST. Of course, we all remember the bold claim Microsoft made in 2015 that Windows 10 will be the last Windows ever released. So, could Microsoft plan a complete overhaul of its "last-ever OS"?
In my mind, it is very unlikely that Microsoft will straight-out announce a set retirement date for Windows 10 (although its lifecycle page still lists 2025 as the End-of-Life date for Windows 10) and a release date for a new OS that replaces Windows 10 within the next 12 months for business, education, and enterprise customers. However, I do expect a big change in how updates will be rolled out (see below).
Mary J. Foley says that she expects a new "Windows variant" (interesting choice of words given that variants don't have a positive connotation at the moment) that is consumer-oriented: "I'm expecting that this 'new' Windows will not be the Windows 10 21H2 update. I think it will be more targeted at consumers and not be classified as a normal feature update. I believe Microsoft will continue to release regular Windows 10 feature updates alongside this other Windows variant for some months/years in the future, though no one from Microsoft has yet said this publicly."
Sun Valley Is Not Equal To Or A Code Name For A Potential Windows 11
Another term being thrown around a lot is "Sun Valley". Some even say they are synonymous. But as Windows Central's Zac Bowden pointed out in October 2020, the 21H2 Windows 10 feature update is actually code-named "Cobalt" following the Azure team's semester development schedule.
He also notes that — despite all the speculation that it would be a cumulative update only — Cobalt is most likely going to be much bigger than the usual feature update and will include significant user interface changes across a number of Windows components and apps, code-named “Sun Valley.” Therefore, "Sun Valley" is most likely a part of whatever Microsoft will announce on June 24th, but it won't be a new Windows 11 OS code-named "Sun Valley" as those are two different things.
Satya Nadella: This Will Be "One Of The Most Significant Updates Of Windows In The Last Decade"
Regardless of whether we are talking about a new Windows 11 or Sun Valley, we have to note the fact that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that he is very excited about this next generation of Windows (which he has been self-hosting in the last couple of months) and he is very excited because this "will be one of the most significant updates of Windows in the last decade."
But he isn't the only one. Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi tweeted that he hasn’t “been this excited for a new version of Windows since Windows 95!”
Those are some very bold statements to make considering that, since 2011, Microsoft has not only released Windows 8, Windows 8.1, Windows RT, Surface RT, Surface Pro, and Windows 10 (and 11 subsequent feature releases) but also the introduction of Metro Apps/Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps leading to MSIX/app attach and Windows Virtual Desktop (now renamed Azure Virtual Desktop). These may have been said just to hype up the event, but they leave you wondering what change could be so massive to warrant such statements.
Microsoft Killing Windows 10X Isn't A Coincidence
On May 18th, 2021, Microsoft's Head of Windows Servicing and Delivery, John Cable, announced in a blog post that the company has scrapped its plans to release Windows 10X, a lightweight version of Windows that was traded as a Google Chrome competitor. He said: “Instead of bringing a product called Windows 10X to market in 2021 like we originally intended, we are leveraging learnings from our journey thus far and accelerating the integration of key foundational 10X technology into other parts of Windows and products at the company.”
This is interesting considering that 1) Microsoft figured out how to decouple its feature updates from its CodeOS when it started to release features "when they are ready" and 2) Microsoft has paused releasing Windows 10 preview builds in order to test its servicing pipeline. The question is this: How will this impact future feature rollouts? My guess is that enterprises will have another massive OS migration ahead of them before feature releases will flow in a steady trickle of weekly updates rather than bi-annual big updates.
The Cash Cow Windows Is In Trouble
Since the introduction of Windows 10 in 2015, Microsoft has been offering (and constantly extending at least for consumers) free upgrades from older versions to encourage users to move to the new OS. This means that unless you buy a new device (and indirectly pay for another Windows 10 license), you would get to keep your Windows 10 indefinitely — resulting in potentially reduced revenue streams in the future if left as is.
Although the Windows division generated 15.6% of the software giant's annual revenue in 2020 and revenues are slightly increasing year-over-year, the former cash cow is significantly losing ground when it comes to revenue contributions percentage-wise. For example, in 2017, Windows made up 20.7% of the company's annual income, in 2018 17.7%, and in 2019 16.2%. This could be a reason for Microsoft to seek different ways to monetize the OS.
Conclusion: We Will Have To Wait & See
Recently, we have seen a LOT of enterprises struggling with being stuck on Windows 10 Version 1809 — thanks to the changed and delayed IT priorities due to the mad scramble to get everyone working remotely as quickly and efficiently as possible in March 2020. However, this version is now (after two delays) finally end-of-life since May 11th, 2021. So throwing around the idea of a completely new OS might be a little panic-inducing for some of us.
But, in my opinion, there is no reason to panic (yet). While I think it is important to pay very close attention to the announcements that will be made on June 24th, 2021, it is of the utmost importance to not get sidetracked right now and to stay on course to move your end users off of Windows 10 1809 or 1903 and onto a newer version to benefit from the security and productivity feature upgrades.
Keep in mind that there will have to be some major evolution of the underlying Windows CoreOS every so often and I expect that this might be one of those times. And if you are already managing your IT in an automated, repeatable, and scalable Evergreen IT fashion, you are prepared for this upgrade as well. However, if you are not, I highly recommend taking this next migration project as the jump-off point towards Evergreen!