On Windows 10's fifth anniversary, we look to the past — and the future

Windows 10 2015 Desktop
Windows 10 2015 Desktop (Image credit: Windows Central)

Windows 10 is officially five years old today. Five long years of the latest version of Windows, without a successor to pass on the baton. Of course, this isn't really true. These days, there's a new version of Windows every six months, but they all fall under the same "Windows 10" banner thanks to Microsoft's push to transform Windows into a platform that's constantly updated.

Windows as a Service has been in effect since Windows 10's debut on this day five years ago. We've had a total of nine versions of Windows 10 since then, with the tenth version expected later this year. It's easy to forget how far Windows 10 has come since it launched, with the nine feature updates introducing many features and changes that make the product much better.

Looking back

I look at Windows 10 today and think it really hasn't changed much since 2015, but actually going back and using the 2015 version of Windows 10 proves me wrong entirely. Almost every part of the OS has been touched with improvements and changes since 2015. The Windows Shell, including the Start menu, Taskbar, and Action Center have all been updated with changes and UI enhancements.

Let's take a closer look at the Start menu, which is almost entirely different today compared to its 2015 version. The Start menu in 2015 was a basic launcher that made some weird design choices. The apps list was hidden behind a button, showcasing your most used apps in the left-hand list instead. The live tiles were very basic, with weirdly formatted context menus.

Windows 10 2015vs2020 Start

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Going back to the 2015 Start menu after using the 2020 Start menu makes the original one feel unfinished, and that's probably because it was. Today's Start menu puts your apps list front and center, has a much cleaner live tile interface with way more customization options, a hamburger menu for quick access to different areas of your PC, and cleaner looking context menus.

It doesn't end there, either. The out of box setup experience has also been redesigned since the original 2015 version, as have most of the in-box apps. Even the File Explorer has been updated with a new search interface and dark mode support. Windows 10 in 2015 feels unfinished compared to today's version of Windows 10, and that's probably because it was.

But that's the nature of software development these days. Nothing is ever truly finished. Windows 10 will never be done, and even five years in, Microsoft is still finding things to update and improve. Admittedly, changes to the forefront of Windows 10 have slowed in the last couple of years, but that seems to be picking up again now that Panos Panay is in charge.

Looking forward

Windows 10 2020 Desktop

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

It's about time Microsoft started focusing on the Windows 10 UI once again. Although things have come a long way since 2015, it's fair to say that Windows 10 hasn't had a major UI refresh yet. I think that's going to change with the next few releases of Windows 10. Later this year, Microsoft will release Windows 10 20H2 with an improved live tile interface and notification UI.

This is just the start, I'm told. Microsoft will continue to bring the Windows 10 UI forward with more changes and enhancements, including things like rounded corners, new sounds, updated animations, improved in-box apps, and more, with Windows 10 releases next year. Microsoft is reinvesting in Windows 10 big time, and it starts at the interface and user experience.

I think we should be thinking about the next versions of Windows 10 as something that looks to the future, instead of something that builds on the past. So, on Windows 10's fifth anniversary, we can celebrate knowing that there's much more to come for Windows in this space. Microsoft has some big plans for Windows 10 in 2021 and beyond, and I'm excited for it.

There's also Windows 10X, and Microsoft's Windows Core OS efforts in general. I personally class any Windows Core OS products as separate from Windows 10, but in the grand scheme of things, they all fall under the Windows umbrella. Windows 10X is the future of Windows, but that's the far future. We're not there yet and won't be for a while.

That's why Windows 10X is launching on a subset of low-cost PCs next year, instead of PCs from every price bracket. Microsoft's Windows 10X platform will play a much bigger role further down the line. But before that happens, Microsoft will continue to cater to the existing version of Windows 10, as that's where all one billion Windows 10 users are today.

What are your thoughts about Windows 10 five years on? Where do you think Windows will be in five years from now? Let us know in the comments.

Zac Bowden
Senior Editor

Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows 10 on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter: @zacbowden.

  • I remember Build 10240, the original Threshold 1 release. It was pretty bad in places, apps kept crashing, very unstable at times. It got a lot better from the first update in November. I was testing Fast ring builds on a VM until near final release.
  • I remember that build too
  • The original release in July 2015 was horrible. It looked so basic, and I didn't really enjoy any of the releases until they started polishing the UI a bit, with things like fluent design. Hell, you couldn't even change the title bar colours from white in the initial release, not sure what they were thinking with that one. Now that the new icons are coming in, it's looking so much better and a lot fresher, but it shouldn't have had so many inconsistencies from the start.
  • since 2015 we've got a new start menu layout, dark and light modes, tweaks to notifications and quick actions, a new lock screen and login UI, the separation of search and Cortana and new versions of both, Windows defender UWP app replaced the Win32 version, Edge got many important features and updates before switching to the new chromium based version, Fluent design overhauls to the shell & built in apps and 3rd party apps, Windows Timeline, various control panel settings ported to the new settings app, WSL & the new Terminal, small updates to various parts of the OS like take manager, WoA with x86 translation layer, countless under the hood changes and much more. Recently a friend of mine was having problems with his laptop which as I discovered had Updates completely disabled by the "computer shop guy to prevent problems"; It had the Anniversary Update and honestly it felt like a different version of Windows like going back from 7 to vista. The future looks promising with stuff like WinUI3 and Project Reunion bringing potential consistency to Windows.
    RIP Windows 10 Mobile.
  • I’m really hoping Microsoft’s own apps get updated with WinUI 3. I hope they embrace it.
  • For the most part, Windows 10 is better and more refined now than it was in the beginning, but there are some places where you feel the love for the details has been lost. Gone is the neat transition between start menu and search. Then there are the broken animations like Task View and Aero Peek, which have been broken since 1809 and 1803, respectively, which frankly is incredible. I won't believe they are fixing any of them until I see it. Still, all in all, I've had some good times with Windows 10, especially in the early days when builds were exciting and there was much evolution. In that sense, happy birthday to Windows 10.
  • Happy birthday windows 10
  • What would be exciting is a product that worked well and can be counted on. How many of us were let down and could not get work done because of bugs and terrible updates. As an retired IT manager I had my fill of problems. You get what you agree to, a product not guaranteed to work and that you can't take them to court., and in reality, no place else to go. Windows keeps many employed trying to make it work and writing about it. I want a toaster, not an never-ending project to make it function and tricks and tips to deal with a bad product. The future will be some other product, or a completely re-written Windows that works as it supposed to. Or we could have thousands of tricks, tips and work arounds. If the license agreement did not make you accept a bad product the largest class action suit in history would have already happened.
  • Personally I think they gave up on windows 8 too soon. People would have gotten use to it and With touch screens on most PC's it was a nicer interface. Oh and rename win 10 pro to windows Enterprise
  • The problem is it was too orientated for touch screens, and not desktops. It was so great for touchscreen, there was a slew of Windows 8 tablets which sprouted up. With Windows 10, that all reversed, and Windows 10 is so horrible with tablets (even with tablet mode), Windows tablets have basically all disappeared now. Also, there is already a Windows 10 Enterprise.
  • All Microsoft had to do to save Windows 8.x was unify the interface and offer windowed mode for programs. Having fullscreen "apps" while stuffing the Desktop into a Tile was unnecessarily disorienting for those without the patience to figure it out.
  • All those years and the settings app is still awful. Control panel is better.
  • No at all.
  • The first version of Windows 10 was a great release. Best build number Easter egg too! 2^10×10 = 10240
  • And yet, no modern windows explorer and no tabs. 😢
  • I turn on my computer, open outlook, edge, word, excel. Not sure I see any difference other than the stability of the OS. Sure stuff looks better, but an icon on the screen is all you need to be productive. I don't really care what it looks like provided it remains consistent year after year.
  • In 2015 Windows 10 was supposed to be the "last version". In fact with 2 updates a year and almost 3 years support for business there are more versions than ever. It's just a brand not a version. In 2015 it had "universal" apps across mobile, PC, hololens, tablets. Now "universal" means PC only. In 2015 Cortana was your digital assistant. Today she is a search app. In 2015 there was a mobile platform. Today there isn't. There have also been five years of a jarring interface. In one-part fluent design and in others 20-year-old icons. In one place a settings app just before you click an option to end up in the control panel from Windows 7. Inconsistency is the consistency. Lots of half-finished ideas that never get finished. Big changes in emojis while other features languish in a half-finished limbo. Fit and finish is poor because all the energy goes into the next big thing rather than fixing the quality of the current big thing. I use Windows every day. I use it at work. I use it at home. However, it's a mess. Five years in we should be seeing progress towards the next client OS in a mobile first world. Instead Microsoft's cash comes from Enterprise that is happy with Windows is right now and want absolutely no new features. It's customer base that earns the billions for Microsoft doesn't want the new it just wants compatibility with the old. If you are a consumer then Windows comes on your PC and gets you on the web. There are few new interesting programs for Windows now. With the new Edge you don't even have to download Chrome for a half decent web experience. However, fewer consumers are buying PCs and those are the only devices Windows is found. If you are a business you just want Windows to carry on running that stock inventory program that's 20 years old and the applications that need IE compatibilty. Don't change anything. Ever. Windows 10 is a pile of contradictions. Part Windows 8 live tiles, part Windows 7 start menu, part wannabe developer system with a Linux sub-system, part bridge to Microsoft services, and part application platform to run that old copy of PhotoShop you never want to upgrade. A mess of aspirations, productivity tools and no clear vision. Loved by no-one. Used by a billion people.
  • Harsh, but true. I wonder why MS doesn't want to their OS to be the best, they seem to settle for it being functional. I wonder why they don't push their consumer products to be the best, they abandon them without a fight. If MS can't get excited about their products, how can I?
  • "What could possibly be next?" After Microsoft's abandoning Zune, Groove, Band, Phone, Cortana, innovation, and integration, what's left?