What’s new — and expected — in Win10, build 9926

Microsoft’s Jan. 21 Windows 10 presentation revealed all sorts of new information about the next version of Windows, reportedly shipping this fall. Two days later, build 9926 arrived.
Here’s an overview of what you can see in the current Win10 Tech Preview — plus what’s likely to dribble out over the summer.
If you haven’t been following Windows 10’s progress or need a refresher, I recommend reading the Oct. 2, 2014, Top Story, “Microsoft unveils preview of a new Windows,” and the Oct. 23, 2014, Windows 10 article, “Windows 10 Tech Preview now at build 9860″ (paid content).

Winning back Windows users’ hearts and minds

If you missed Microsoft’s two-and-a-half-hour dog-and-pony show, there’s an excellent 12-minute YouTube recap, put together by blogger Bavo Luysterborg (better known as Bav0).
The Windows 8 debacle’s impact on Microsoft is abundantly clear in the presentation. CEO Satya Nadella stated that the grand goal of Windows 10 was to make PC users not just want to use Windows, but to love using the OS. Lofty statements are expected at press conferences, but the announcement that really caught everyone’s attention was the use of Windows 10 and “free” in the same sentence. Operating Systems VP Terry Myerson declared “we will be making available a free upgrade to Windows 10 to all devices running [Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1].”
Most surprising, however, was the statement that all Windows 7 users will get a free upgrade for a year after Win10’s release — and once they’ve upgraded, all future changes to Windows 10 will be free. There is, of course, some ambiguity I’ll discuss at the end of this article. (Has Microsoft taken another lesson from Apple, or it is a sort of unspoken apology to those who bought Windows 8?)

Taking in the new user interface

If you’ve followed Win10’s development at all, you already know that the next Windows incorporates a variant of the Windows 7 Start menu — so desperately missed in Windows 8. Figure 1 shows a new Start menu that combines Win7’s quick-access list with Win8’s tiles.

Windows 10 Start menu
Figure 1. Windows 10's Start menu melds elements of Windows 7 and Windows 8.

The Start menu in Windows 10 Preview build 9926 clearly needs work; it’s missing drag-and-drop reorganization, custom menus, and so forth. But you get a good feeling for the overall design.
Presumably, we’ll be able to move and manage entries in the left column. The tiles on the right can be moved, removed, and reorganized under custom headings. You can also add new tiles. As in the original Metro Start screen, the tiles are “live” — they can automatically update bits of information displayed within the tile.
Universal — aka Metro, aka Modern — apps become more useful in Windows 10. No longer confined to running full-screen, they now peacefully cohabit the desktop, running in their own resizable and manageable windows (see Figure 2).

Metro on desktop
Figure 2. In Windows 10, a native Universal app can run in its own resizable window on the desktop.

If you’re a fan of Windows 8’s Metro Start screen — I know there are at least two of you out there — Win10 won’t disappoint you. Clicking the four-headed arrow at the top of the Desktop Start menu expands the menu to full-screen. It’s a workable compromise to the Desktop/Metro interface dilemma.
If you’re skeptical, give the January Win10 Preview a try. Again, the Start menu isn’t complete, but I think you’ll be comfortable with the overall structure.
On the other hand, Microsoft killed off the much-maligned, clumsy-to-use Charms bar (all together now: Hurray!) and replaced it with Notification — a popup window (see Figure 3) with general system notifications at the top and various shortcut buttons at the bottom. (In this build, the window is, in places, still called Action Center.) Soon, Windows 10 machines will interact with their users just as with nearly every Android and iOS device.

Notification Center
Figure 3. In Win10, the dysfunctional 
 Charms bar is replaced by the far more useful Notifications.

There are lots of other changes in Win10’s interface (many of which appeared in build 9860), including multiple desktops, multi-monitor support, and window-snapping to the four corners of the screen.

Cortana takes up residence on your desktop

If your PC doesn’t have a microphone, I recommend going out and buying one. Launched on Windows Phone, Cortana is Microsoft’s digital-assistant answer to Apple’s Siri. Cortana, however, is a bit more refined: running in the Win10 Search box (shown in Figure 1), she responds to both speech (“Hey, Cortana!”) and keyboard entry. Voice input is enabled by clicking the search box, clicking the three-bar icon in the upper-left corner of the search window, and then selecting Settings. When you give Cortana a search task, she’ll look on the local system, in OneDrive, and out on the Web (see Figure 4).

Cortana search
Figure 4. You can chat with Microsoft's digital personal assistant, Cortana, in the Win10 Search window.

Cortana isn’t the all-knowing, all-seeing app Microsoft’s ads would have you believe, but I find her surprisingly clever and useful — if still very buggy in build 9926. (Tip: Don’t pause after saying “Hey, Cortana.”) But then, I also like Siri and even use Google Voice from time to time. There’s a battle between the next generation of digital assistants brewing, and that’s good for all of us.
(Cortana has an interesting backstory [YouTube video]; she evolved from the central AI entity in the Halo games.)

Significant changes coming to “Universal” apps

Among the Windows 8 users I know is a near-unanimous consensus: the built-in Metro/Modern/Universal apps are dreadful. Metro Mail, Calendar, People, Videos, Music, and so on are so horribly deficient, almost no one wanted to use them.
That should change — at least a little bit — with Windows 10. Mail is being rewritten and relabeled (groan) Outlook. That will make Microsoft’s tenth different mail app. Unlike the Metro-based Mail, however, demos of the new Universal Outlook look almost as good as, say, Gmail on the Android or iPad. Yes, there’s a chance that Microsoft’s going to make a native mail app that people will actually use — but don’t hold your breath.
Other Universal apps are going through major facelifts. For example, the new Photos app in build 9926 is buggy and not especially capable, but it looks workable. The new Maps app lets you download maps for offline use — Microsoft is catching up with Garmin, circa 2001. Videos, Music, Messaging, and People will reportedly all be enhanced. We’ll have to wait and see; it’s a low bar.
For gamers, the real Win10 surprise is Xbox. According to the presentation, the shipping version of Windows 10 will let you stream Xbox games from an Xbox One device to your PC. Many hardcore gamers were puzzled as to why you’d do this, and it isn’t clear to me whether the stream will come through Win10’s new included Xbox app. But Microsoft’s Xbox chief promoted this capability as a really big deal.
(In another Windows 10 announcement, Microsoft showed [YouTube video] Office for Windows 10 on tablets. It looks as good as Office on the iPad or Android.)

Continuum coming — but only on Surface for now

Continuum is Microsoft’s answer to the problem of attaching and detaching keyboards on portable, convertible PCs. As shown in the presentation, when you detach a keyboard, Windows 10 will ask for verification that you want to switch into Tablet Mode (i.e., apps open in full-screen, the Start menu expands to full screen, and so forth). When you reattach the keyboard, a second popup asks whether you want to leave Tablet Mode.
Exactly how Continuum will work on specific devices is still unknown. As best I can tell, only Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 has built-in support for the technology. Apparently, it won’t be easy for other hardware manufacturers to work out the events that will trigger Continuum. It’s also unknown whether there will be Continuum drivers for current convertibles.

Loads of misconceptions about Project Spartan

Microsoft’s new browser, code-named “Project Spartan,” doesn’t appear in build 9926. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of misinformation about the app.
Based on the public demos, Spartan looks good — it’s similar to Google Chrome. (Rumor has it that Spartan might even run Chrome extensions.)
Spartan’s key enhancement is your ability to manage interesting Web content. You can, for example, mark up displayed webpages with either a digital pen or a keyboard and send the annotated pages to other people or post them in OneDrive. Of course, Cortana is built into Spartan; there’s a view that makes reading text easier, and you can save pages offline.
Spartan is a Universal app — it’ll run on the desktop only inside a Universal-app window. It doesn’t speak ActiveX or support Browser Helper Object modules.
Most important, Spartan doesn’t replace IE. For better or worse, we’re going to have IE around for a long time. (In fact, if Spartan tries to open a page that requires IE, it uses the IE 11 rendering engine.)
As with much about Win10, the details about Spartan are still under wraps. But it seems that Microsoft will give us a more secure alternative to Internet Explorer.

Will HoloLens make Microsoft cool again?

One of the more mind-blowing parts of the Win10 presentation was Microsoft’s new HoloLens technology. Think of it as a third-generation Google Glass. (Google, ironically, has ended its Glass demonstration program; it’s unknown what Google will do with Glass next.)
Despite the name, HoloLens (more info) isn’t a Star Trek–like holographic machine. Unlike Oculus VR (site), it isn’t strictly virtual reality, either. The headset implements a sophisticated form of assisted reality — a blending of physical and virtual worlds. Essentially, digital images are superimposed on what’s around you, beyond the headset. HoloLens technology places images in the context of what you would normally see.
What’s Windows 10’s connection to HoloLens? The next Windows will have HoloLens APIs — the routines that apps will call to control the headset.
HoloLens has the potential to radically change the way we use computers. Wired’s Jessi Hempel gives a thorough, first-hand review of the technology, which is due out sometime later this year.

A looming question: Will we be tethered?

As discussed above, Windows 10 will be free to Win7 and Win8.1 users. And, unlike Windows 8, it nicely blends the use of tablet and desktop PCs. So what, you might ask, is the catch?
Microsoft hasn’t explicitly said one way other the other, but based on hints and comments, it seems likely that many Windows 10 users (anyone who doesn’t fall under a corporate volume license) will have to stay tethered to the Microsoft mother ship most of the time. Likely, Microsoft believes that keeping Win10 users continuously updated to the same version of Windows will reduce support issues and costs.
What does that mean? On the plus side, that means you’ll get all of the new updates as soon as they’re available.
On the minus side, you’ll also get all of the new updates as soon as they’re available.
In other words, all updates will be installed automatically, whether you like it or not. If you fear and loathe Microsoft’s Automatic Updates as much as I do, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Time and again, Microsoft has shown that it’s incapable of reliably patching its own software.
Can it do any better with Windows 10? For the near future, that’s essentially an unanswerable question — though to Microsoft’s credit, Office 365 depends on a regular phone-home model and has had few updating problems. Still, Windows is a much more complicated system.
It appears that Windows 10 is the operating system Win8 should have been — and significantly much more. If Microsoft stays on track, we’ll have a successor to Windows 7 we can all live happily with. Let’s keep our fingers and toes crossed.