The Windows 21H1 update, and why I won’t miss Windows 10X

Disclosure Microsoft is a client of the author.

I started focusing on Windows as an external analyst in 1994, during the ramp-up to Windows 95. In fact, 1995 was a near-magical time for me as the lead launch analyst for Windows; it turned my first and only year at Dataquest into a traveling and media extravaganza.

Reminder: in 1995, laptops were not very useful. They cost a fortune, had no performance, and battery life was measured in minutes. There wasn’t yet a build-it-yourself desktop option, hardware was kept for more than five years, and with desktops and monitors, you could have any color you liked, as long as it was sickly beige. 

Each beta version of Windows 95 led to hours of shuffling floppy disks and resolving driver and application incompatibilities; coupled with regular crashes, these problems invariably erased all progress with whatever you were writing if you didn’t save files regularly. I did my first system build that year and discovered that restoring from a backup was painfully long and incredibly annoying when you fried a hard drive. (The motherboard wouldn’t fit in the case due to the lack of standards at the time.)

Still, Windows 95 was an improvement over DOS/Windows, and the actual launch was an event I’ll never forget. 

Experiences with Windows have changed dramatically over the last decade, with none of the train-wreck moments created by Windows Millenium, Vista, or Windows 8. Windows 10 has been very stable, far more secure, and comparatively a dream to work with. I’d thought Microsoft was going to make another mistake with Windows 10X — which was due to be announced this month — but the company changed its mind. And Windows 21H1 (I just installed it this week), has so far proven to be a pleasant surprise. 

Let’s talk about Windows 21H1 and why Windows 10X would have been a mistake.

Bifurcating Windows is a bad idea

Microsoft has bifurcated Windows several times over the years, and every time it did, the decision to do so ended badly. First, there was OS/2 vs. Dos/Windows, then Windows 95. OS/2 was ahead of its time; the desktop hardware wasn’t yet capable of running a heavy OS. Even at IBM, the primary backer of OS/2, many departments avoided it like the plague for compatibility and slow-boot reasons, though it was arguably more reliable. Then came Windows NT, an updated, clean room version of NT, and Windows 9x. 

Windows NT went from being an alternative to UNIX to becoming the “corporate” desktop OS. Windows 9x focused on consumers, but in-fighting between the two groups was ugly, and when Windows 2000 (the follow on to NT) and Windows Millennium came out, neither OS was loved. Millenium, in fact, was a train wreck. 

Windows 2000 became Windows XT, but there were embedded versions of Windows and versions that worked on an ARM that sucked as the failed Windows Mobile and Phone platforms.  Every time Microsoft tried to have multiple desktop versions of its OS, things ended badly.

I expected Windows 10X to continue that trend. Fortunately for us, someone at Microsoft got tired of dealing with new Windows variants and decided to roll many of the Windows 10X features into a full Windows 10 update. Thus, we got Windows 10 21H1. 

Windows 10X vs. 21H1

Windows 10X, which initially targeted education, was supposed to have a new Taskbar that looked like a copy of Apple’s taskbar and a new start menu that looked like it came from a smartphone. (Users really hate when you change user interfaces, and dumping this on students likely wouldn’t have ended well.)  You’ll be glad to know that those interface changes appear to be gone in 21H1. Also not changed as would have been in Windows 10X: the file explorer. In fact, after the latest Windows 10 update, my system generally doesn’t feel that much different. 

What has changed is that Windows Update seems to be much faster, allowing you to load updates more quickly. Security on the platform appears to be more robust, with tighter controls and protections over the OS files and far better resistance to malware. With this change, I expect entire classes of malware will fail if they try to execute anything bad. 

Another improvement is that Windows 10 21H1 does seem to handle multiple cameras better. I have two cameras, a Poly 15 that I mostly use for videoconferencing, and a just-released Dell Video camera I mainly for Windows Hello. I now seem to be able to switch between these cameras much more quickly and should be able to switch to other cameras more seamlessly after this update.  

Wrapping up

With increasing concerns about malware and hacking attacks, an update focused mainly on improving the update experience and on platform security is likely be better received than Windows 10X would have been. I’m not saying that improving usability at some point won’t make sense. But as we emerge from the pandemic and try to decide whether we will ever travel or go into the office again, this isn’t the time to make significant interface changes. 

A concept called “minimum necessary change” applies to highly disruptive times like this. It appears Windows 10 21H1 is following that concept, because it appears to change what we needed to be changed, and pretty much leaves everything else alone.  We are dealing with enough change at the moment. 

So far, the 21H1 release has been painless and pleasant, which is all I look for in any Windows update.   The 1990s were fun. But I have no desire to revisit the pain of those early versions of Windows and hope Microsoft sticks with the “minimum necessary change” concept.