UPDATED 15:14 EDT / JUNE 24 2021

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Microsoft reveals Windows 11: new interface, Android app support and faster updates

Microsoft Corp. today officially revealed Windows 11, the next major release of its ubiquitous operating system, which brings major upgrades both to the interface with which users interact on a daily basis and to behind-the-scenes subcomponents such as the data storage management system.

The new version marks the biggest update to Windows since the release of Windows 10 in 2015. Microsoft didn’t share the date when the operating system will start rolling out users. However, the company provided a detailed overview of the new features that users can expect during a virtual event today that featured Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella and other senior Microsoft leaders.

Streamlined interface

The first improvement Windows 11 will offer over Windows 10 is a new interface. The icons at the bottom of the operating system interface will no longer be on the right side of the taskbar but rather at the center. Among the relocated icons is the new Start button that, when clicked, will bring up a revamped version of the Start menu with shortcuts to the user’s apps, recent documents and a search bar for finding files.

The revamped menu is one of several new additions to the Windows interface. There’s also a Microsoft Teams integration and a pop-up panel called Widgets that, according to Microsoft, uses artificial intelligence to display a personalized news feed for every user. The Widgets box doubles as a hub for accessing weather alerts and maps.

Microsoft is pairing the changes with a large array of smaller interface tweaks that include improved fonts, rounded corners for interface panels and numerous other user experience enhancements. “Microsoft aims for customer delight here,” commented J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “It’s consistent with CEO Satya Nadella’s famous declaration that he wants Microsoft to build products that people will ‘love,’ not tolerate. Part aesthetic refresh and part user experience redesign, the Windows 11 interface will rise or fall on usability.”

DirectStorage-powered data access

Microsoft’s software engineers implemented the interface upgrades in Windows 11 alongside a number of new and improved subsystems. Among the new components is DirectStorage, a technology originally developed for Microsoft’s Xbox video game device that accelerates the rate at which data can be retrieved from a computer’s flash storage.

It improves performance in two ways. First, DirectStorage reduces the number of processing steps involved in fetching the data. Second, it harnesses the performance of the high-speed NVMe data transfer interface that ships with many modern flash drives.

Another technology brought over from Xbox is Auto HDR. Aimed at videogame enthusiasts, the technology can automatically increase the quality of light and shadow effects in three-dimensional virtual environments, notably games, to improve visual fidelity.

A third, even more impactful under-the-hood upgrade is Windows 11’s enhanced updating mechanisms. According to Microsoft, Windows updates will be 40% smaller in the new operating system release, which should translate to faster download times.

Joining DirectStorage, AutoHDR and the more efficient update mechanism is a technology called Intel Bridge. It powers what is perhaps the most surprising capability in the entire collection of new features rolling out with Windows 11: the ability to run Android apps on Windows.

Recompiling Android code

The majority of Android phones run on processors based on technology from Arm Ltd. As a result, when developers compile their apps, which is the process of turning raw code files into a working program, they must compile the code into a form that’s understandable by Arm processors. This Arm-compatible form normally can’t run on Windows since Windows machines mostly use processors from Intel Corp. rather than Arm, an obstacle that Microsoft is addressing with Intel Bridge.

Intel Bridge, which as the name implies was developed by Intel Corp., is what’s known as a post-compiler. It turns Android app code that has already been compiled to run on Arm-powered smartphones into a form that works with x86 Intel chips. Because most Windows computers run on x86 chips, the majority of Windows 11 users will gain the ability to run Android apps when the new operating system arrives.

A notable aspect of Intel Bridge is that it may help make Microsoft’s popular Surface line of Windows devices more competitive. The flagship device in the product line is the Intel-powered Surface Pro two-in-one detachable, which can be used both as a laptop and as a tablet. By giving users access to Android apps via Intel Bridge, Microsoft could make the device more practical to use as a tablet and create more competition for Android handsets from other companies.

Enterprises in focus

Though the main emphasis is on consumers in Windows 11, Microsoft has added features for enterprises as well. The features primarily focus on helping organizations ensure business applications they’ve built for Windows 10 will work well on the new version as well.

To that end, Microsoft is introducing an application testing tool called Test Base that can automatically detect if a program may not be fully compatible with Windows 11. Test Base is complemented by a free service called App Assure. If organizations with 150 or more users encounter program compatibility issues, App Assure will enable them to turn to Microsoft for help and have the company fix the software issues at no cost. 

“Windows 11 is built upon the same core code base as Windows 10,” observed Forrester’s Gownder. “That’s good news; it means that the application and driver ‘breakage’ that famously plagued OS releases like Windows Vista is unlikely to occur. And Win32 apps will still be able to run natively on Windows 11.”

Microsoft is looking to keep other aspects of managing Windows device fleets in the enterprise simple as well. “You’ll plan for, prepare and deploy Windows 11 just as you do today with Windows 10,” Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay wrote in a blog post. “Upgrading to Windows 11 will be like taking a Windows 10 update. The familiar management experiences you have in place today – like Microsoft Endpoint Manager, cloud configuration, Windows Update for Business and Autopilot – will support your environment.”

“Ultimately, Windows 11 will need to spend some time in the wild with users before establishing its true purpose and identity,” said Gownder. “But a revamped user interface and many thoughtful features give it a chance to stand out, particularly since its release coincides with a new world of hybrid work. And all those incremental changes, taken together, can sometimes add up to more than the sum of their parts. The proof will only be seen in the months after its release, as judged by users.” 

Images: Microsoft

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