Why Windows may never get another killer feature

It’s a combination of things, but mostly it’s a shift in focus.

Sometime this spring, Windows 10 will get its next update, which has become a twice-a-year ritual. Several years ago, Microsoft decided Windows 10 would be the last big-bang update for the operating system, as the company moved the OS to a Windows-as-a-service model. There’s no longer any need to buy a new version of Windows. It gets updated twice a year (and at no charge, since Windows as a service is not a subscription model), with security updates and bug fixes sandwiched in between.

That’s certainly easy on the pocketbook. And it makes getting the latest and greatest version of the operating system easy as well. No need for ugly, messy, disk-based upgrades. It happens automatically over the internet.

There’s only one problem with that approach: There haven’t been any “latest and greatest” features introduced into Windows for quite some time. And don’t be surprised if there never will be again. Under Windows as a service, the operating system gets more stable over time and patched more quickly. But the days of looking forward to something new and exciting in Windows are long gone. What you see today is essentially what you get tomorrow. I’ll explain why.

First, let’s take a look at just at how ho-hum the last three of Windows 10’s updates have been and how few interesting features will be introduced in the next one. The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, released in October 2017, tweaked OneDrive, introduced a moderately useful feature called My People that made it a bit easier to communicate with a few selected contacts, and failed miserably at trying to link Windows to Android and iOS phones. The next one, the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, introduced one interesting new feature, Timeline, that lets you resume your previous activities, but it’s somewhat crippled because it works with only a handful of select, Microsoft-created applications. The best feature of the most recent update, the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, was the moderately useful, powered-up Windows Clipboard. But given that a similar feature had been part of Windows more than three decades ago in Windows 1.0, and later killed, it’s not exactly a new idea.

As for the next semiannual upgrade, due out this spring, don’t expect much. The preview builds have so far been underwhelming, including a tweaked Start menu, a new “Light” color theme, and the ability to pause updates for a limited amount of time. Are you popping the champagne corks yet? I didn’t think so.

Is Microsoft not working on anything for Windows that we might call major? Well, back in 2017, it announced that it was bringing a truly innovative feature to Windows 10 called Sets. Sets would put tabs into applications, not just browsers, and let you create documents that would combine multiple apps — for example, a Word document that had browser tabs on it for accessing any online research you’ve done.

But announcing a killer feature is one thing, and delivering it is another thing entirely. And Microsoft has included the Sets feature in multiple previews of its twice-annual Windows updates, only to later pull it before release because Microsoft couldn’t get it to work properly. It won’t be in this spring’s update, either. Don’t be surprised if it never makes it into Windows 10.

Why is this happening? One commentator, on Ars Technica, faults the process that Microsoft uses to develop Windows. He points out that Windows has a massive, complicated codebase, some of it ancient by tech standards. Before the Windows-as-a-service days, new versions of Windows were released every two to three years. That gave the company more time to develop and test new features. With twice-annual updates, the development process has been compressed into as little as one-sixth the time previously available. That makes it far more difficult to introduce significant new features that are bug-free.

That’s true. But it’s not the primary reason there may never be a killer feature introduced into Windows. The real reason has more to do with business than with the development process. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has made a concerted effort to move Windows away from the core of the company’s business. He’s moved Microsoft’s focus toward the cloud and is also making sure Microsoft’s products are more open and work with other technologies, including open source, iOS and Android. That means more development time is spent on those capabilities than on introducing new Windows features.

It’s worked spectacularly, with a resurgent Microsoft at times topping the list of the world’s most valuable public companies. So expect Windows to continue to become more reliable and stable over time, as it has been getting under the Windows-as-a-service strategy. And expect useful tweaks here and there. But don’t look for any new killer features. Under Microsoft’s successful pivot to the cloud, there’s no reason to develop and release them.