Speculating about the Windows 9 Start menu and other OS features

Despite a lack of hard facts about Microsoft Windows 9, it's possible to make educated guesses about its release date, cost and features such as its Start menu.

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Here's what we know for sure about Windows 9: practically nothing. Even the Windows 9 brand has yet to be confirmed. All we have is the codename "Threshold," which supposedly refers to the next generation of Microsoft's Windows operating system.

Despite the lack of details, rumors are circulating about when the product will be released, how it will be packaged and what it will cost. Conjecture also extends to whether we'll return to Windows 7's good old Start menu. Then there's the future of Windows applications and the degree to which the cloud will be integrated into the OS.

Given the bounty of buzz, let's try to make sense of the more salient issues and perhaps bring order to the legions of unconfirmed hype.

When, what and how much

There are plenty of theories about when Microsoft might release Windows 9, ranging from late 2014 to sometime next year.

The preponderance of opinion falls on April 2015. Is that Microsoft's plan, or is it wishful thinking? Development was not scheduled to begin until recently, and we don't know how much work has already been done and how much is left to do. We also don't know the full extent of the development effort itself or what Windows 9 will look like.

The Microsoft Operating System Group (OSG), however, does appear to be speeding up the delivery process. Microsoft released Windows 8 in October 2012, followed by Windows 8.1 in September 2013. The first Windows 8.1 update came soon after, and Update 2 (or Windows 8.2?) is already in the works.

Windows 9 may not be far behind. So what we see in that OS might depend on what the OSG can do in a shorter amount of time as it aims for a schedule that more closely resembles that for Windows Phone than it does the traditional desktop model. So April might be doable.

Assuming Windows 9 does arrive sooner rather than later, we're still left with the question of how it will be packaged. Microsoft appears to be planning to realign the product SKUs offered to consumers and OEMs, but it's difficult to say how that will actually play out.

Perhaps we'll still see an edition structure similar to the current desktop OS -- Windows 8.1, Windows 8.1 Pro and Windows 8.1 Enterprise -- with more options thrown in.

Another suggestion being bandied about is that Microsoft might move to a subscription-based structure, with different features offered at different subscription levels. The higher the level, the closer we get to an enterprise OS (in a "pay to play" scenario).

Which brings us squarely to what Windows 9 might cost, a huge unknown amid a bevy of unknowns. When we consider the shift in SKUs and the possibility of a subscription-based model, projecting into the future becomes even more difficult. Still, Microsoft is anxious to move past the Windows 8 era, so at the very least, we'd expect upgrading to be cheap.

It's even possible that some edition or level of service will be offered for free, at least according to water-cooler gossip. One suggestion is that the Windows Phone version will be free, but not the desktop one. Another is that the desktop will be free to consumers, but not to OEMs. Or free to OEMs, but not to consumers. Or maybe the upgrade will be free, but not the standalone product.

Perhaps we should flip a coin to decide.

Return of the Start menu

If there's one Windows 9 pronouncement we can make with relative confidence it's that the Start menu is slated for an encore performance. In fact, Microsoft showed off a prototype at Build 2014, which suggests that the new menu will be in the next Windows 8.1 update. Whether this will be the exact Start menu that makes it into Windows 9 is yet to be seen, but clearly Microsoft has acknowledged that many of its desktop users did not appreciate the sudden thrust into a tablet-like world.

Even so, the reintroduced menu will not simply replicate the Windows 7 Start page. The Windows 9 Start menu will likely incorporate "Modern" elements, such as live tiles, and perhaps rely more heavily on Windows Search and the Internet. Whatever the end product looks like, it will likely be a hybrid between the old and the new.

What will be interesting to see is how the redesigned menu fits into Microsoft's larger strategy for an OS that offers a unified experience across all Windows devices, while taking into account the individual device types. To that end, according to the prevailing scuttlebutt, the Start menu will behave differently on a touchscreen device than it does on a desktop driven by only a mouse and keyboard, which is where we'll see the more traditional menu.

In my next article, we'll take a look at applications for Windows 9 and potential integration with the cloud.

This was first published in July 2014

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