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Microsoft unveils its cloud-first Windows strategy for hybrid work

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 5, 2022
Microsoft today unveiled a cloud-first future for Windows, blending Windows 11 with the cloud-based Windows 365 and showcasing new hybrid work features.

Windows File Explorer Windows 11 future
Future Windows File Explorer (Microsoft)

In a major online executive briefing today, Microsoft has outlined its latest strategy and roadmap for Windows. This sees Windows going hybrid, with the user's Windows experience no longer tied to a specific device and a much more central role for the cloud-based Windows 365, introduced last year.

The rethink is a response to the more flexible working patterns that Microsoft has seen people and businesses embracing in the wake of the pandemic. There's a desire both for more flexibility and for more productive face-to-face time. A number of future features coming to Windows 11 — and Windows 365 — aim to improve this hybrid work experience.

The first change is a much more fluid interaction between the device-based Windows 11 and the cloud-based Windows 365. "The line between the cloud and the PC is blurring," says Jared Sparato, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft 365.

New features coming to Windows 365 will allow a user to boot directly into the cloud-based operating environment from a Windows 11 PC, where it will operate as an app alongside others. The user will then be able to switch between the local Windows 11 environment and the cloud-based Windows 365 just by switching between tabs on the desktop. Windows 365 will also be able to run offline, reconnecting to the cloud when connection is restored.

The goal is to refocus the Windows experience on the user's personal profile, and make that portable across devices, rather than being tied to a specific machine. There are security changes too to protect this more flexible arrangement.

Future Windows features

The changes are accompanied by new features in the File Explorer in Windows, which is set to add browser-like features, such as a home page, the ability to open different views in tabs, and favorites (see image). Other new features are borrowed from collaboration apps, such as making contextual suggestions for next actions, while file listings in favorites and recents will have an extra field showing any recent activity on a file, such as comments, shares or edits.

An enhanced video meetings experience adds features within Windows that currently are only available in individual meetings apps or as extensions to graphics card drivers. These include automatic framing of the user, portrait background blur, eye contact, and voice clarity, which includes making spoken audio more distinct and removing extraneous background noise. Live captions will also be supported system-wide.

To help people manage their work when connected, Windows will include the ability to set timers for focus work, during which alerts and notifications are muted, as well as a 'do not disturb' mode.

Microsoft is planning a number of changes to improve support of remote workers and devices, including auto patching, application management for edge devices, and remote help. Borrowing from workplace messaging apps, organizations will also be able to use Windows to send messages to groups of users, for example about compliance requirements or network downtime.

Other measures are focused on security, with built-in phishing detection, the ability to shut down untrustworthy applications by default, or to monitor register keys and revert an application to the company's default configuration if an anomaly is detected. Personal data stored on a device will have the option to encrypt it with a key that can only be unlocked by authenticating via Windows Hello. Devices equipped with Pluton chip-to-cloud security will have further protection against unauthorized data access.

My take

Twenty-five years ago, many people assumed that the advent of the Internet spelt doom for Microsoft Windows. Few back then — including, I suspect, Bill Gates himself — would have predicted that, a quarter-century later, Windows would be on the verge of completing the transition to a cloud-first, device-independent operating system. It's a testament to Microsoft's adaptability that Windows has not only survived the threat from the cloud but instead turned around to wholly embrace its potential.

What has helped Windows survive is that the transition to cloud computing has not been as simple as a wholesale shift from the physical to the virtual. The Chromebook, Google's non-Windows alternative vision for a cloud-first device, currently remains a second-best choice for this connected world. Some work still needs to continue even when disconnected. Other tasks are best completed without the interruption of connected activities (in testament to this, I'm currently writing these words wearing headphones to block any external distractions). As I've often said, the essence of cloud computing is not being virtual, it's being digitally connected. That's what Windows has now embraced in its new guise introduced today.

Paradoxically, this new guise is set to unlock many more sales of Windows PCs and the software licenses that go along with them. Building support for better audio and video in online meetings directly into the device operating system is a smart move, as is the inclusion of security features, some of which depend on Windows-driven hardware options built into the device. Today's event is the beginning of an astute product marketing campaign to persuade Microsoft's business customers that a new generation of Windows PCs is their best bet to shepherd their organizations safely into this new cloud-first era.

I'm sure there's much more of this strategy still to be revealed, too. We haven't heard much about Teams today, even though the new features in File Manager seem to have several points in common with the shared folders of digital teamwork players such as Dropbox and Google. Answering a brief set of questions on the news earlier, Sparato talked about enabling the flow of work across applications and added, "Increasingly you're going to see us taking services and making them composable." Today was an unveiling of a new platform, but the full extent of what Microsoft intends to build on it remains to be seen.

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