Windows XP — Hit!

Windows Vista — Flop.

Windows 7 — Hit!

Windows 8 — Flop.

Windows 10 — Hit!

If you were playing the odds, you’d bet Windows 11, announced Thursday, would flop. But what I’ve seen so far of Windows 11 looks smart. Plus, Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella, in an exclusive interview, joked that 11 is a lucky number.

While the Windows 11 interface has been redesigned, it’s more a fresh coat of paint than a complete remodel. Yes, Microsoft has moved the Start button to the bottom center, but, don’t you worry, you can always put it back in the left corner. There are loads of new productivity features, too, and the headline feature: Android apps!

Amazon (yes, that Amazon) is bringing its Android app store to the new Microsoft Store, and Windows 11 PCs themselves will be able to run the software, regardless of the chip that powers them.

The strategy is straightforward: Release a modern version of Windows at a time PCs are all the rage (thanks, pandemic!) and your biggest big tech competitors—Apple and Google—are under all sorts of antitrust scrutiny.

“Windows is becoming increasingly the device that bridges all these ecosystems,” Mr. Nadella told me. “We want you to be able to connect your phone or other PCs.”

So no, Windows 11 doesn’t run the risk of being a spectacular flop like Windows 8. Rather, it runs the risk of just being ignored. The iPhone and Apple’s walled garden have attracted more people to Macs. The Apple M1 chips, powering new cooler and quieter Mac laptops, only sweeten the deal. And Google’s Chromebooks are hotter than the final sauce on “Hot Ones.” In the first quarter, unit sales of Chromebooks rose 275% year to year, according to market-research firm Canalys.

I didn’t get to test the new version of Windows yet—I’ll do that when it is available this holiday season. Microsoft is offering it as a free update for owners of newer Windows 10 PCs. But after seeing demos and speaking to Mr. Nadella and other company executives (see our video interview), here’s my take on the features that could very well plant Microsoft at the center of your digital life.

New Features

If I had a dollar for every time a Microsoft executive mentioned the new “rounded corners” of Windows, I’d have at least $6. But that emphasis on such a subtle change should put those who are worried about a drastic redesign at ease.

While the icons, settings menus and the rest are more modern, they’re still familiar. Even the migration of the Start button is a “subtle shift,” as Mr. Nadella put it. The button slides left as you open new apps. And if you hate that, you can set it to stay in the left corner permanently.

The bigger deal? New productivity features, many of which were influenced by the pandemic. “We moved from the PC fitting into people’s lives over these last 18 months to people actually fitting their lives into the PC,” Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay told me. “People needed to get stuff done and needed to be more productive and creative.”

Here are the ones I’m most excited about:

Start Menu: Click on the Start button itself and you get a list of your apps. Below that are cloud-powered recommendations of the apps and files Windows thinks you need next. For instance, if you’ve just looked at a Microsoft Word document on your phone, it will pop up on your PC here.

Snap Layouts: When you hover over the maximize button on the top right of a window, you get a set of window layouts to help you place your open apps side by side on screen. Options are tailored to your screen size, so if you’re on a smaller laptop, you will see four layout options. A big monitor? Six options.

Desktops: Similar to the MacOS’s Spaces, Windows 11 lets you create different labeled desktops with different apps you use. You can, for instance, make one desktop your “home,” with your shopping lists and personal email, and another your “work,” with all your spreadsheets, Slacks and stuff.

Widgets: A new button on the task bar opens a widgets layout where you can see the latest news and weather. Microsoft is exploring opening this area up to app developers so they can add their own widgets.

Microphone mute: No more playing everybody’s favorite game, “Can’t Find the Mute Button!” The system tray now has a universal microphone mute button so you don’t have to fumble to find the setting in your video-call app of choice. Speaking of, Microsoft is really trying to make Teams happen in Windows 11 by putting the app’s Chat feature smack on the task bar. Fortunately, you can remove it.

External monitors: You know when you unplug an external monitor all the windows gather on your laptop screen? In Windows 11, when you unplug, your big screen’s open windows just minimize to the laptop’s task bar. Then, when you reconnect it, they spring back into place.

New Store

Windows was huffing and puffing behind Chrome OS, which has access to Google’s Play Store for Android apps, and MacOS, which can run some iPhone and iPad apps. Here, Microsoft closes the gap with a Microsoft Store that will be home to all sorts of Windows and Android apps.

Previously, the Microsoft Store was restricted to certain types of Windows apps. Now any Windows app is welcome. We might finally even see the famously missing Google Chrome web browser.

Android apps from Amazon’s Appstore will also be integrated into the Microsoft Store. Microsoft said the intent is to bring all of the apps over to Windows, and confirmed TikTok, Kindle, Ring and Uber as some of the big names.

I did not get to see this in action but Mr. Panay explained: If you search for an app and it happens to be an Android app, you’ll need to sign into your Amazon account to download it. The first time, you’ll also have to download the Amazon Appstore as a stand-alone app. From then on, Android apps from Amazon will run like any other Windows app.

Mr. Panay said the company will invite other Android app stores to appear on Windows. Given the universe of apps that are on both Android and iOS—but not necessarily on Windows—this could be a big deal for all smartphone users.

And while Windows 11 is really designed to work better with Android phones, Mr. Nadella said he’d like Windows to play well with iPhones, too—though it’s largely up to Apple. He’d welcome Apple bringing iMessage or other services to Windows.

If Apple’s iOS App Store and Google’s Play Store are walled gardens, Microsoft wants its new store to be a “Sound of Music”-style open field. Unlike those platforms, Microsoft will allow app developers in the Windows 11 store to use their own commerce and in-app payment systems—and will permit the developers to keep 100% of that revenue. (It will also have its own payment system that developers can use, though Microsoft will typically take a 15% cut of transaction revenue.)

“The rules of our platform give us the opportunity to differentiate,” Mr. Nadella said. “We have the ability to have multiple marketplaces that can thrive.” He added, “We want to have great tools like, say, Teams but we also welcome Zoom or Slack or anything else to be first class.”

New Support

As PCs become more like giant phones with new chips and cellular connectivity, Microsoft has re-engineered the software to work better on these future platforms. Translation: Fewer next-generation Windows laptops and tablets will sound like spaceships and feel like pizza ovens. In fact, Mr. Nadella said system architecture—how software and hardware talk at a base level—was one of the driving forces of releasing a new version now.

Specifically, this version of Windows will work better with Arm chips from Qualcomm. While Microsoft and others will make apps for these chip types, Windows 11 is also designed to be better than Windows 10 at running older Windows apps on these new chips.

Mr. Panay said the designs of the new Windows 11 computers coming from PC makers are “kick-ass.” When asked if Microsoft was designing its own Arm chips (like Apple does), he said the focus is on collaborating with silicon partners.

To get Windows 11, you might need to buy one of those fancy new computers. Hardware requirements are more significant than those for Windows 10: You need a processor from the last three or four years, four gigabytes of RAM and 64GB of storage. Microsoft says many newer Windows 10 PCs will be upgradable, and you can use its PC checker tool to see if your system is compatible.

Running Windows 7 or 8? Better luck next time. Microsoft won’t offer a free upgrade path for those operating systems. Besides, chances are your system won’t be compatible anyway.

Of course, that base of more than a billion Windows 10 users is the most critical to Microsoft. If people fear the upgrade, then 11 will be remembered as no more than a Windows Vista.

“Innovation is about taking risk. Long before it’s conventional wisdom that this is a hit, you have to have the inspiration and keep at it,” Mr. Nadella said.

Unless the risk is angering people about moving the Start button. In that case, you gotta include an undo.

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