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February 6, 2018

What is Windows Polaris?

by John_A

Since the release of Windows 10 in 2015, Microsoft has made it clear that it wants to move away from its past style of operating system releases and towards a new, more singular and unified approach. It’s already brought together its desktop Windows 10 OS with Windows 10 Mobile, and Xbox Live infrastructure — and Polaris could be the next step in that trend.

But what is Windows Polaris? Although we don’t know for sure just yet, as Microsoft hasn’t made any sort of official announcements, the general line of thinking is that it’s the PC component in Microsoft’s future Windows strategy. Windows Core OS will act as a base for all future Windows iterations. We’ve had hints that Andromeda OS will be the version used in mobile, which could be used on a future Surface phone. Meanwhile, Polaris could be the one you run on your desktop or laptop.

Windows Core OS

The main element that’s needed to make Windows Polaris a reality is Windows Core OS. It’s been hinted at by anonymous sources and reports since the latter months of 2017 and is the baseline operating system that Polaris and other iterations will likely be built on top of.

The idea behind Windows Core OS is to turn Microsoft’s aging Windows platform into something far more modular so it can react more swiftly to changes in the market. Where OEMs looking to build new devices at this time have to opt for pre-packaged versions of Windows, possibly containing features they don’t need, Windows Core OS would make it so that new versions could be crafted specifically for devices without much effort.

Windows Core OS would mean that any new form-factor of device could have its very own Windows operating system with all and crucially, only, the features it needs. That should in turn speed up battery life, performance, and make the whole experience easier to understand for the casual user. In that way, they wouldn’t be unlike the operating systems that have come to dominate the mobile space in recent years.

Microsoft began to move towards this ideal back in 2015 when it unified its kernel and OS core across all Windows devices. UWP apps served through the Microsoft Store are another component of that plan. With those elements in place, the last piece of the Windows Core OS puzzle, as per WinowsCentral, is Windows CShell. It lets Microsoft and device makers overhaul the look and feel of its operating system for specific devices, without having to rebuild it from the ground up.

It could even allow models to shift between UIs depending on their usage at the time — a little like how Microsoft’s already existing Continuum feature works.

Once those components of Windows Core OS are in place, Microsoft is said to be planning to release a multitude of variants off of that baseline, each known as separate “composers.” One of those is said to be called Andromeda, designed for the mobile space, while Polaris is thought to be the one aimed at traditional Windows PCs of various form-factors.

Polaris benefits

Even if Windows Core OS may be a form of Windows that more commonly mirrors the streamlined mobile operating systems like Android and iOS, Microsoft hasn’t forgotten about the desktop and laptop market. Indeed, according to Windows Central, Polaris is Microsoft’s attempt to strip back all of the legacy elements of the Windows experience to shed some fat and become far better for it.

By stripping out some of the legacy components that make the modern Windows operating system so compatible with hardware and software of yesteryear, it should operate faster, especially on lower-end devices. Its security will also be improved and we could see better battery life on portable devices as well.

Aimed more towards casual users and possibly built as a successor to Windows 10 S, Polaris will likely make itself easier to manage through a simplification of settings and back-end systems. A new UWP version of the Windows File Explorer should make navigation easier for those who haven’t been brought up on decades of Windows usage. Likewise, the Settings App would replace much of the typical functions of the Control Panel, making accessing certain backend functions more intuitive.

What will be lost?

A major component of all that streamlining though is removing functions and features that have been part of Windows for multiple versions. While that’s great for casual users who didn’t need advanced or legacy features anyway, for those more versed in Windows usage, there could be some notable absences from Windows Core OS and Windows Polaris specifically.

The traditional File Explorer and Control Panel could be just the tip of the iceberg. Certain apps like Microsoft’s Paint and Notepad could be lost, alongside things like fax support. There’s even talk of Win32 app functionality being removed, making it so anything not built using Microsoft’s UWP wouldn’t function.

While it seems unlikely that Microsoft would remove that functionality entirely — the suggestion is virtualization and cloud-streaming could allow legacy apps to still run on Polaris — Microsoft has been very keen to push people towards the Microsoft Store. There are obvious benefits to that kind of ecosystem and Android and iOS have leveraged their own application marketplaces successfully for years, but that’s not likely to be a ‘feature’ of Polaris that appeals to everyone.

How do you get it?

For now, you don’t. Polaris is very much an internal development project at Microsoft with no official anything. Although there has been some suggestion that it could see the light of day in 2019, that’s far from certain.

Should Polaris make an appearance at some point in the future though, it won’t be forced on anyone. Thought likely to run alongside traditional Windows 10 systems rather than instead of, Polaris would be something that manufacturers could offer for entry-level systems, or as a customizable option for consumers. Certain market segments with specific needs, like education and enterprise, could also be potential audiences.

Due to the way Polaris is designed off of a new baseline Windows ecosystem too, it’s unlikely that there will be an upgrade path to or from Windows 10 as it exists now. That separation may please Windows users who want the full control offered by a more traditional Windows operating system, but it would be interesting to see how that effects uptake. Existing editions of Windows 10 have taken years to overtake the beloved Windows 7 install base. Polaris could take far longer if only new devices can support it.

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