The big Windows 11 leak earlier this month was never part of Microsoft’s plan. Developers at the company have spent the majority of the pandemic working from home and secretly building a new version of Windows that’s designed for a post-pandemic era. “It didn’t really leak. It was some early weird build,” says Microsoft’s Windows and devices chief Panos Panay in an interview with The Verge. “It didn’t matter, when something like that gets out incomplete, you’re like: okay.”
Panay describes it as just another test of patience in the distinctive journey of how Windows 11 came to be. Just months before the pandemic began, Panay stood onstage and introduced the world to two new dual-screen devices: the Surface Neo and Surface Duo. These were supposed to revolutionize the way we work on the go — then the pandemic hit, and the world stopped going anywhere. Panay says he still believes in dual-screen devices, but the world of PCs has changed.
“You have to step back and consider what’s most important for people right now, and so much has changed over the last 18 months,” explains Panay. “A lot of the time spent over the last 18 months [within Microsoft] was looking at Windows and what it means to be for what’s next [with hybrid work].”
Microsoft was planning to ship Windows 10X, a simplified version of Windows made for dual-screen devices, on its Surface Neo device. The company quickly pivoted toward promising Windows 10X for laptops once the pandemic began and then eventually reworked the OS into Windows 11.
The PC market had its first big growth spurt in a decade during 2020, and it’s clear Microsoft saw a big opportunity in the reported 75 percent year-over-year increase in the time spent in Windows 10. All signs are pointing toward a mix of working from home and the office, and Windows 11 is the result. “The PC started to move from fitting into people’s lives to shifting our lives to fit into the PC,” says Panay.
Windows 11 was born out of a pandemic, and that influence is clear. “We designed this product living through the pandemic worldwide,” says Panay. Windows engineers used Microsoft Teams to communicate daily, and that way of working has clearly inspired at least one Windows 11 feature: universal mute. A new mute button appears on the taskbar in Windows 11, and it works across apps to prevent embarrassing microphone moments.
It almost feels like time away from the office made Microsoft realize some of the other pain points in Windows for remote workers. This is highlighted best in a new Windows 11 feature that will finally group your apps on the screen you left them on if you’re using multiple monitors or connecting up a laptop to a monitor. (In Windows 10 currently, your apps will often be randomly rearranged when you disconnect or reconnect a monitor.)
The distinction between work and play has blurred considerably during the pandemic, and Windows 11 seems designed to tackle both states equally well. For the former, Microsoft Teams is integrated directly into Windows 11. Android apps will also run alongside Windows apps and offer access to the mobile and tablet apps that aren’t typically associated with the productivity world of Windows. “Think about it this way: what is it that you want to do with your device, and where do you want to do it?” asks Panay. “Ultimately, Android plays a key role in that.”
Microsoft has been trying to get tablet and mobile apps onto Windows for years, and whether developers share that same desire remains to be seen. Microsoft is now supporting UWP, PWA, win32, and Android apps in its own app store, which is good news for developers and consumers alike. It’s a far more open store and a significant change that could see additions like Steam being part of the Windows store one day.
Windows 11 isn’t finished yet, though. Microsoft now has months of testing to complete before a wide release is available in October. And yes, upgrades for existing Windows 10 users are free. “I’m proud of what the team has done, and I feel super proud of that team holding together and getting to this point today,” says Panay.