For plenty of businesses, Windows 8 is a tough sell. A focus on a new touch-optimized interface required users to relearn how to navigate Windows, and the removal of key interface elements left even savvy workers feeling confused.
Now, Microsoft hopes to reclaim the workspace with Windows 9, a brand-new version of Windows expected to launch sometime later this year. Microsoft hasn't confirmed many details about its next major release, but leaks and rumors have given us an idea of what to expect. That potentially includes the ability to disable Windows 8's intrusive Start screen and the addition of a voice-activated virtual assistant. While we wait for more details, here are five rumored features for Windows 9 that could make it better for work.
Return of the Start menu
Windows 9 is likely to be more familiar to Windows veterans, if rumors are true. Reports suggest that the classic Start menu — the same small menu that pops up when you click the Start button in every version of Windows prior to Windows 8 — is set to return in the new release.
That's a big departure from the touch-based, full-screen Start menu Microsoft launched with Windows 8. The so-called "modern" Start menu features big, colorful tiles for launching touch-optimized modern apps, which are totally separate from their desktop counterparts. The result was a mixed-up user interface that required users to relearn how to navigate Windows — and that made businesses wary of adopting the platform. That's why Microsoft may be set to bring back the classic Start menu, which lets you launch applications without pulling you away from the desktop.
Meanwhile, a related rumor suggests that Microsoft is set to ax the Charms menu, a hidden menu in Windows 8 that gives you quick access to options such as Shut Down and Search. On touch-screen devices, the menu is accessed by swiping in from the right side of the screen. But the menu is awkward on desktop PCs, where users often accidentally activate the menu when moving their mouse near the right side of the screen.
Cortana, a virtual personal assistant, debuted on Windows Phone 8.1 this year as Microsoft's Answer to Siri on the iPhone and iPad, and Google Now on Android devices. Now, rumors suggest that the productivity-boosting application is making its way to the desktop for Windows 9.
Cortana helps you be more productive by letting you perform a huge variety of actions using voice commands. If the app is included in the next version of Windows, it might appear on your taskbar so you can activate the command prompt with a click. From there, you'll presumably be able to issue a voice command using your computer's built-in microphone, or simply type a command, just like on a Windows Phone device.
On a mobile device, you can ask Cortana about the weather forecast, set an alarm or simply perform a Web search using voice commands. It can also push notifications to you, such as alerts about upcoming appointments or even flight delays. Only time will tell which new functionality might debut with a desktop version of Cortana.
The return of the classic Start menu doesn't mean the death of the modern Start menu. Instead, Windows 9 may default to different menus depending on which type of device you're using. That makes sense: The classic Start menu is better suited for office workers in the desktop environment, whereas the touch-optimized modern menu, along with touch-based modern apps, are better on touch-screen tablets. According to some rumors, desktop users will still have the option of accessing the full-screen Start menu, and even running modern apps — but the interface won't be thrust upon them like it was in Windows 8.
But what about hybrid devices such as Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, which can be used as either tablets or desktop computers? One rumor suggests that the Windows 9 interface could change depending on how you're using it. When you have a keyboard attached, it might default to the Windows desktop with the traditional Start menu, and when you're using your device in tablet mode, it would default to the modern, full-screen Start menu, to give you quick access to touch-based apps.
Windows Phone isn't the most popular smartphone platform, but it is a solid pick for business users since it's potentially more secure than Android, and integrates seamlessly with Microsoft Office. But so far, the platform has been mostly disconnected from the desktop Windows environment. Microsoft has hinted that the next version of Windows could help unify mobile and desktop Windows devices. Part of that integration includes a single app store for smartphone and PC apps, though it's not yet known what other ways Windows 9 might interact with Windows Phone.
For example, Apple recently announced that the next version of its desktop operating system, OS X Yosemite, will connect wirelessly to your iPhone or iPad, letting you instantly continue working on a document or email when you leave one device and pick up another. Is it possible that Microsoft could implement similar functionality in its next OS release?
Virtual desktop support
Virtual desktops are a handy organizational tool that are already available on Mac computers. Now reports indicate they're headed to Windows 9. In a nutshell, virtual desktops let users create multiple active desktops and toggle between them with a mouse click. That means you can quickly switch between different groups of applications that you use for different tasks, without cluttering up your task bar. That functionality can already be achieved using a third-party program, but this will mark the first time that virtual desktop functionality is baked right into Windows, if the reports are true.