It wasn’t that long ago that the release of a new personal computer operating system by Microsoft Inc. represented a seismic shift in technology. On Wednesday, a new version of the software, called Windows 10, will be available to download, but this time the question is: Does anybody care?

“It’s important, but it’s probably one of the least important of the things in Microsoft’s lineup,” says Brent Thill, managing director of software research at financial services firm UBS, who points out that Windows now represents only 15 per cent of Microsoft’s earnings.

Developers and members of Microsoft’s “Insider” testing program have had access to the Windows 10 for months. On July 29 it will be available as a free download to consumers with compatible PCs or tablets. Over time, it will essentially erase the Windows 8 edition, introduced in 2012, that was poorly reviewed and ultimately shunned by business and consumer users.

“It’s a little strong to say [Windows] doesn’t matter to Microsoft. There’s still a billion and a half PCs out there,” says Stephen Kleynhans, vice-president of research with technology analysts Gartner Inc. “Is it as important as five years ago? No. It certainly has seen some of its importance bleed off, because of new types of devices and the shift toward mobile phones.”

The Windows 8 software flop was ill-timed, given the PC market was already softening thanks to the onslaught of mobile computing devices. There has been a 10-per-cent decline in PC sales since 2010, according to analysts at IDC. There were 308.6 million PCs shipped in 2014, down 2.1 per cent from the previous year, and the third consecutive year of declines. Back in 2010, PC shipments reached a peak of 346.2 million units.

Few expect that even a brand-new operating system can alter that trend.

“It’s been a long time since a new operating system has really driven anybody to buy a new PC,” Mr. Kleynhans says. “They are trying to re-establish relevance for Windows. There’s some neat stuff in Windows 10. Do they really think that it’s going to win back everybody? No.”

Cosmetically, Windows 10 is a departure from the tile-focused touchscreen-optimized interface of Windows 8 (tiles are now hidden away in the revamped Start Menu, a function that draws its roots from Windows 95). Among the changes immediately apparent are the return of the desktop interface, the removal of the confusing “charms bar,” and the addition of the new Web browser called Edge to replace the outdated Internet Explorer.

“It’s kinda back to the future; they are bringing a lot of old-school features,” Mr. Thill says.

The critical businesses for Microsoft are now its commercial cloud computing offerings, Azure among them. The company’s latest earnings were overshadowed by huge writedowns related to its Nokia purchase, but CEO Satya Nadella boasted that 50 million workers were now using the cloud-delivered subscriptions of Office 365. The annualized run rate for cloud services now sits at $8-billion (U.S.), and growing fast.

“I don’t think people really understand Azure is a billion-dollar business growing at 50 per cent. They’ve outperformed their mega-cap peers, they have beat Oracle and SAP,” says Mr. Thill, who speaks to a lot of Silicon Valley startups that say that cloud is a two-way race between Amazon or Microsoft’s services over other rivals.

But even though Windows isn’t what it once was to Microsoft – which also continues to branch out with hardware investments in Xbox, Surface, HoloLens and smartphone hardware – Mr. Kleynhans says we shouldn’t expect the company to stop investing in the platform any time soon.

“A lot of people take Windows for granted,” he says, but Microsoft has invested a huge amount of time and money to revamp not just the look of Windows 10, but also the delivery.

Essentially, this is the last “numbered” version of Windows: From here on out, it will be constantly updating OS (similar to Apple’s Mac OS X and iOS systems); those changes will be invisible to most users, but the impact is significant.

“There was a bunch of engineering changes that were necessary, a lot of Microsoft’s internal processes have been completely reworked,” Mr. Kleynhans says.

He adds there may also be some sentimental attachment to the rock upon which Microsoft was built. “To some extent, Windows is part of the psyche of Microsoft. It is their homegrown platform.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jul. 28, 2015 6:16PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jul. 29, 2015 7:28AM EDT