Windows 10 is five years old - here's how it's evolved

After being in preview since the fall of 2014, Windows 10 launched on July 29, 2015, making it five years old today. At the time, Barack Obama was the President of the United States, and the iPhone 6 was the latest model. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was set to reboot a franchise, being released months later. NASA's New Horizon spacecraft had just given us close-up images of Pluto.

Yes, I know. Five years isn't that long, but it is a significant amount of time, at least in the world of technology. I wrote a three-year anniversary article two years ago based on the idea that that would have been around the time that we'd be getting a new version of Windows. By now, we'd be beta testing Windows 12.

But we're still on Windows 10, because Windows 10 introduced a new concept: Windows as a service. Rather than getting a new version of the OS every three years or so, Microsoft just regularly updates Windows 10, so it no longer has to compete with itself.

This process has had its ups and downs, and the process itself has evolved over time. And instead of getting a new version of Windows that looks different, the look of the OS evolved too.

My original plan was to do this article exactly like I did the one two years ago, with side-by-side screenshots of the original version of Windows 10, and the latest, version 2004. But then I thought, I'd like to do more than that. After all, not only have things changed, but some things have come and gone, and have been mostly forgotten.

Let's start at the beginning.

Almost everything that you see from the original version of Windows 10 has changed, except for those first few installation screens, which remains very much the same. The rest of the OOBE is completely revamped, as you'll see in a bit.

There were also these annoying apps like Get Office and Get Skype, which served no purpose other than providing the user with a link to download the respective apps. Another interesting one was Phone Companion, which was supposed to help you to link your phone with your PC, although at the time, we didn't have things like Your Phone.

One of the big features of Windows 10 was the new Edge browser, codenamed Project Spartan. It promised to be more standards-based than Internet Explorer, and it had cool new features like the ability to write on webpages. Edge was recently rebuilt from Chromium, and it doesn't have the webpage markup feature that it used to, although you can still mark up PDFs. I was able to install Edge Chromium on Windows 10 build 10240, although it doesn't replace Edge Legacy. Another big new feature was Cortana, the virtual assistant that was previously exclusive to Windows phones.

Windows 10 did kill off a beloved feature from Windows 8.1, which was OneDrive placeholders. It allowed users to see their entire OneDrive, right-click on a file, and choose whether it should be stored locally. With Windows 10, users had to choose folders to sync. Microsoft did promise a replacement for them, but it didn't arrive until late 2017.

Also, note the final image that shows the build number, but no version number. At this point, there were no version numbers. Back in the summer of 2015, we didn't know what the next version would be, and some expected it to be Windows 10.1. This version is now commonly referred to as version 1507.

But new features weren't all that Windows 10 represented. It was also about one OS for all of Microsoft's devices, such as Xbox One gaming consoles, phones, HoloLens, IoT, and more. The Universal Windows Platform was set to be an app model where developers could create one app to run on everything, and those apps could be distributed through the Windows Store.

The first feature update was version 1511, and it was just called the November update.

Version 1511 was a mostly minor update, but it's key in that this was supposed to be Windows 10, but partners wanted the OS sooner. That's the only reason that it ever shipped in July. That's also why version 1511 was the shipping version for Xbox One and Windows 10 Mobile.

One thing that was new was that the Get Skype app was gone, and it was replaced with three apps that were meant to integrate Skype with the OS. Clearly this was the plan all along, and Get Skype was just thrown together. Those three apps were Skype Video, Messaging, and Phone. None of these apps work today, and they were (mostly) gone by the next update.

That update was version 1607, also known as the Windows 10 Anniversary Update. As the name implies, it shipped almost a year after version 1507.

The Anniversary Update brings us a lot closer to what we know of as modern Windows 10. Those three Skype apps were replaced with Skype Preview, the first attempt at a Skype UWP app. The Messaging app stuck around for a while, and while the Anniversary Update was in testing, Microsoft tried out something called Messaging Everywhere. It was going to allow users to send SMS through the Messaging app, routed through their phone. This feature was killed off and eventually folded into the new Skype UWP app, and later Your Phone.

Another big feature was dark mode, something that we had seen on phones for some time and was heavily requested on desktop. This is also when Windows Ink made its debut. Sure, you could mark up pages in Edge, but now this was meant to be a thing across apps. Microsoft introduced the ability to draw routes in Maps, write on images in Photos, handwritten notes in OneNote, and more. And it was all in a Windows Ink Workspace pop-up that could be opened by clicking on a little pen icon in the taskbar.

Microsoft also introduced an all-new Start Menu, which was oddly controversial at the time. It defaulted to the All Apps view and refined the Tablet Mode UI. This is mostly how the Start Menu works today, although there are some visual changes.

The next update was Windows 10 version 1703, also known as the Creators Update.

If the Anniversary Update heralded the Windows 10 experience that we know today, then the Creators Update gave us the out-of-box experience that we know today, albeit short of the annoying Cortana integration that we now have. Everything was just made to be a lot prettier, with darker colors, more images, and so on.

Some other things were changed too. The Xbox Game Bar was added, and Xbox was added to Settings. The Get Office app was brought to version 2.0, and with that, it finally had some actual functionality, serving as a launcher for the web apps and showing recent documents.

But that wasn't the hero feature of the update. The big new feature was an app called Paint 3D, which still ships with Windows 10 today. With this update, Microsoft actually announced that it was deprecating Paint, something that it rolled back on pretty quickly. First, it promised to still offer Paint through the Store, and eventually, it completely backtracked.

Microsoft really tried to push Paint 3D for a while; it was part of the Windows Mixed Reality push. The firm had recently announced low-cost VR headsets that started at $299, while competitors were charging much more. Of course, it took forever for the company to get this effort off the ground, and competitors had caught up before Microsoft even got started.

Next up was the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, or version 1709.

The Fall Creators Update continued Microsoft's push toward mixed reality creators. I always found it a bit odd that Windows was supposed to be aimed at creators at this point, but the company still wasn't doing anything to compete with Apple's iMovie or anything along those lines. Windows Movie Maker was long dead, and all Microsoft was coming up with were things like Paint 3D and in this version, Story Remix.

Story Remix was the hero feature of the Fall Creators Update, and it was originally going to be its own app, and then it wasn't. It ended up just being a part of Photos.

Remember, this was an era when Microsoft actually used to try and hype Windows 10 updates. Story Remix was unveiled at Build 2017 when the firm actually used to talk about Windows during its keynotes.

One other key new feature was OneDrive Files On-Demand, Microsoft's long-overdue replacement for the placeholders functionality that was in Windows 8.1. Thankfully, Files On-Demand is default functionality today.

For this article, I actually spun up all of these versions in Hyper-V VMs, and Microsoft was kind enough to provide me with a couple of Windows 10 Pro product keys to make this happen. I skipped over versions 1803, 1809, 1903, and 1909 though, because we're really at a point where we're just talking about modern Windows 10 now. In fact, versions 1809 and higher are still supported.

The meantime...

Let's just mention a few things that have changed, before we jump into Windows 10 in its current iteration. First of all, support lifecycles have changed throughout the years, and while versions 1809 and higher are supported for everyone, the only version that isn't supported for anyone is version 1511.

Versions 1507 and 1607 are still supported on the Long-Term Servicing Branch, now called the Long-Term Servicing Channel. Version 1703 is only supported for Windows 10 Team, which is for Surface Hub PCs. Versions 1709 and 1803 are supported for Enterprise and Education SKUs. Remember, Windows 10 was supposed to be simpler with everyone on the same version of the OS.

But even that idea was given up on. This happened after Windows 10 version 1809 was a disaster. Some users had their files deleted, and Microsoft actually had to pull the update for a time.

With version 1903, Microsoft stopped forcing feature updates on users. The only way a feature update would be installed automatically would be if you were on a version of the OS that was nearing the end of support. Instead, the update shows up in Windows Update, and waits there until you opt into installing it.

That's not all that it did though. With version 1909, the feature update wasn't even a feature update. It was just an enablement package that bumps up the build number by one. Microsoft hasn't committed to doing this every year for its second-half updates, although it was well-received, and it's happening again this year.

That brings us to today, with Windows 10 version 2004. As you can see, a lot has changed over the years. That Get Office app that was just a link to download Office is now a full-blown Office app. The Edge browser that the team tried so hard for years to get on par with Chrome is now built from Chromium. The Xbox Game Bar has become a robust tool for playing games, and now has its own store for third-party widgets.

You can see in the Settings app that there are now these useless buttons for OneDrive and Windows Update. In fact, the Windows Update button will often tell you that you need to install updates even if you don't. The out-of-box experience is also loaded up with a bunch of useless junk, as it's now filled with an annoying Cortana narration, and various screens that try to get you to opt into various services. When setting up my 1507 VM, I was shocked to remember how simple the OOBE was back then.

Skype has been replaced by the desktop app, which is now all that's available through the Microsoft Store. After so many iterations, it turned out that it didn't make sense to develop two versions of the app for the same platform in parallel, and it took five years to figure that out.

Windows 10, as a whole, has evolved for the better. Sure, there are good and bad updates, and things do go wrong. But what's cool to see is that so much of Windows 10 today is unrecognizable when compared to what was originally introduced.

What's next...

Next for Windows 10 will be version 20H2. Yes, Microsoft is actually going to be using H1 and H2 for version numbers, instead of just codenames. 20H2 will include the new Chromium-based Edge browser, rather than having it pushed to you as a separate update. It will also contain some minor Start Menu changes, which will change based on your theme.

And then, of course, there's Windows 10X. Announced back in October, it was promised to be an OS for dual-screen PCs. This didn't happen though, and now Microsoft is aiming it squarely at low-end single-screen PCs.

Windows 10X is something to be excited about though. It has a completely new UI, getting rid of tiles and rethinking the Start Menu from the ground up. I'd love to see the shell come to Windows 10 as the new tablet mode. It also runs apps in containers, making it a more secure, more modern experience.

Windows 10X was originally supposed to arrive this fall alongside 20H2 for Windows 10. Now, it's been pushed back to the 21H1 timeframe, so hopefully, we'll learn more about the single-screen Windows 10X soon.

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