Microsoft is reportedly working in a new strain of Windows. Windows Lite. This Windows SKU will not act like other versions of Windows in the past few years; it won’t run Windows 10 qua Windows 10. It will run the new Chromium enhanced Edge, but not Google Chrome. It’ll run some apps, but they’ll be from the Microsoft Store only. It won’t be Windows 10 in S-Mode, but some other new thing entirely. Microsoft has tried before with Windows 10 S, Windows 8.1 with Bing, and Windows RT. None so far have debuted to critical success. The target now — as with before — is Google’s Chrome OS. Now, I was initially sceptical of the idea, and while I feel like Microsoft has the ability to pull it off — the firm has no qualms about backing off from projects that aren’t immediately successful. It’s a risky one, but it isn’t an inherently bad one.

What is Windows Lite? I’ll let Petri’s Brad Sams explain that one:

If you have heard this before, it should sound a lot like Windows 10 S and RT; Windows 10 Lite only runs PWAs and UWP apps and strips out everything else. This is finally a truly a lightweight version of Windows that isn’t only in the name. This is not a version of the OS that will run in the enterprise or even small business environments and I don’t think you will be able to ‘buy’ the OS either; OEM only may be the way forward.

[…]The goal of Windows Lite is to make it super lightweight, instant on, always connected, and can run on any type of CPU. Knowing that this week Qualcomm will announce a new generation of Snapdragon that can run Windows significantly better than the 835, fully expect to see this new chip powering many of the first devices running the new OS.

And there’s something a bit different about Lite that we haven’t seen from every attempt at launching this type of software in the past; it may not be called Windows. With a new name and a different UI, uses WCOS, and is going to be Microsoft’s next ‘big bet’ in the Windows space.

The good news here is that this also means that UWP still has a future. During the past 18 months or so, it looked like the company’s new app format was going to go the way of Silverlight but with Windows Lite, the future is alive and well.[…] […]With previous versions, this ‘modern OS’ attempt looked like Windows, acted like Windows, but wasn’t Windows. By significantly changing up the UI, the name, and everything else, it should hopefully ‘feel’ like a fresh start and not a hacked-together attempt at modernizing Windows. Microsoft is removing the baggage from the OS by not naming it Windows, while a risky move, it shows that the company understands that Windows is not its future.[…]

Windows Lite is another iteration of the Windows RT idea, a Windows that’s not quite Windows. As such, it’s kneejerk critique would be its lack of desktop apps. Many comments will cite the absence of this app or that as deal breakers, and while valid, it represents a mindset that’s not quite in sync with how people use computers this day at scale. In 2018, nearly all of us all live on the web. Mobile First, Cloud First was once Microsoft’s tagline, and it isn’t any less true of how we live now than it was when it was first uttered. Think of the most used, most popular desktop apps. Evernote, Office, Spotify, all of these apps rely on online access to reach their full potential. With Spotify, you’re streaming music from the cloud. With Evernote, your notes are constantly syncing between all your devices. Ditto with Office, in fact, that’s just how Microsoft wants you to use it in sync with OneDrive. Google’s desktop apps don’t even exist outside a browser, and yet Google Docs is a serious, existential challenger to Office.
An argument might be made that a web first, Edge-focused approach to app development would kill Windows 10 app development, but that would be facetious at best. There is no Windows 10 app development. All the best apps for Windows were made years ago, and all the new toys are iOS, Android and Web. Microsoft has nothing to lose in this regard.

However, this approach has an overwhelming downside. If Microsoft is planning to make a Windows version of Chrome OS –as it appears to be — it needs to deal with the fact that Chrome OS already exists and comparisons will inevitably be drawn.

Microsoft has launched several Chrome OS killers in the past with Windows RT, Windows 8.1 with Bing, Windows 10 S. They all have one thing in common — they’ve been buried in the dustbin of tech history. Chrome OS has survived assassination attempts by these killers, trudging on on with critically acclaimed devices like the Chromebook Spin, sometimes ambitious but flawed ones like the Pixel Slate. A Chromium powered Edge and the Microsoft Store could compete with Google Chrome and the Google Play Store in theory, but Microsoft runs the danger of simply validating Google’s approach to operating systems while undermining ‘real’ Windows.  As for Chrome OS itself, the operating system has been improving in leaps and bounds (though perhaps it needs to slow down and take a breather), in the past year it has added support for Android apps and improved this support with every update. In the past 6 months, it has added Linux app support and plans to improve it rapidly going forward.

A Windows Lite version would struggle hard, on one hand, to compete with Chrome OS in the present. On the other hand it would be weighted down by Microsoft’s past reputation for putting out gimped versions of Windows and dumping them in a matter of months. If I may add a third hand, it would also need to escape being characterised as Windows Lite/Microsoft’s Chrome OS competitor/gimped Windows. Reviewers would pan it and recommend you just get another computer running real versions of those operating systems instead.

If Microsoft is pushing Windows 10 Lite (as described) with intent to succeed, they’ll has to convince buyers that they don’t need Windows — but instead Chrome OS. Then in the next breath, convince them that Microsoft makes a better Chrome OS than Google, that Edge is better than Chrome, and they’d be better off with the Microsoft Store than the Google Play Store.
It’s a tough sell. Like all tough sells, it depends on the salesman.