It’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic will forever change the world we know — in the ways we live, work and communicate. And that means technology and software will have to change as well.
How? If we look at one dominant software product, Windows, we can already get some ideas. Although it’s still too early to know precisely what Microsoft will do differently with the operating system, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting what it might look like. Here’s what to expect from Windows in the age of pandemics.
The first piece of evidence comes from the upcoming Windows 10 May 2020 Update; Microsoft has changed how it will handle all Windows updates for as long as the pandemic lasts.
The Windows 10 May 2020 Update offers no major new features, has no significant changes, and looks and works pretty much the same as the previous version of Windows. That’s particularly striking, because it’s been a year since the last major Windows 10 update, and you would expect that Microsoft would come up with some notable improvements in that time.
In addition, Microsoft announced that, effective May 1, it will pause the release of non-security Windows updates and only issue security patches. That’s due to the pandemic — IT staffs, which are struggling to keep systems running while working from home, will have to deal with far fewer updates this way.
What do these two facts mean for the future of Windows? Expect very few new features for a while — and expect “for a while” to mean something longer than the duration of the pandemic.
The Windows you see today will very likely be the Windows you see tomorrow. Expect fewer patches, and don’t look for much in Microsoft’s updates. It’s likely that what the company refers to as “feature updates,” which used to be released twice a year, will only be released once a year, and even then will be minor.
There is good reason to believe that the end of the pandemic will not be the end of these changes. Microsoft has been traveling down this path for a long time, with fewer and fewer new features added to Windows.
The pandemic has only accelerated that trend. Microsoft developers have been working at home for quite some time, and will continue to do so for a while yet. During that time, Microsoft will have to make hard decisions about which products need updating the most and which can be left fallow.
And it’s clear that Windows needs fewer updates in the short term, because it’s no longer the company’s cash cow and doesn’t have fast growth ahead of it no matter how many bells and whistles are added.
And that gets us to what new things will be put into Windows. The best evidence comes from the most recent Microsoft earnings report.
The report showed that use of Teams, Microsoft’s collaboration chat and meetings app, has skyrocketed due to the coronavirus and the subsequent mass exodus from offices. As of late April, Teams had 75 million daily active users, the company said, up from 20 million users in January.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explained the spike this way: “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. From remote teamwork and learning, to sales and customer service, to critical cloud infrastructure and security — we are working alongside customers every day to help them adapt and stay open for business in a world of remote everything.”
The company believes the pandemic is a wake-up call that we need to change the nature of work. Disruption will likely become the new normal, with other pandemics and larger and more dangerous storms fed by global warming ahead of us.
In that kind of world, remote collaboration will become king. Jared Spataro, head of Microsoft 365, says, “It’s clear to me there will be a new normal. If you look at what’s happening in China and what’s happening in Singapore, you essentially are in a time machine. We don’t see people going back to work and having it be all the same.
"There are different restrictions to society, there are new patterns in the way people work," he added. "There are societies that are thinking of A days and B days of who gets to go into the office and who works remote. … The new normal is not going to be like what I thought two weeks ago: that all is clear, go back everybody. There will be a new normal that will require us to continue to use these new tools for a long time."
What does that mean for Windows? Expect some form of Teams and possibly other collaboration tools to be built directly into Windows, rather than tacked on afterwards when you decide to download and install the software.
That’s what Microsoft did with OneDrive cloud storage. OneDrive began life as a standalone storage service, and eventually migrated directly into Windows. Everyone gets a basic amount of OneDrive storage; those who want more can pay more for it.
The same things will likely happen with Teams and other collaboration tools. Everyone will get a free copy in Windows with a license for a small number of people, or perhaps with an incomplete set of features. Various for-pay tiers will be able to be bought at differing fees for companies of all sizes.
At first, Teams will be tacked onto Windows. But over time, as remote collaboration becomes an important part of everyone’s working life, it will become more intimately integrated into it, directly into the file system, for example, built into video and audio tools, enabled by voice.
Eventually, expect that Windows will no longer be designed for one-person use, but for multi-person use. It’s hard to know right now exactly what that means. But expect collaboration to be baked directly into every aspect of the operating system in one form or another.
Full integration will be years away. But it’s coming our way. Remote collaboration is the future of Windows in the same way that it will become the future of work.