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Windows Core OS: The complete guide

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Windows Core OS: The complete guide

Keep up with everything Windows Core OS with our handy guide that explains everything you need to know.

Trying to keep up with Microsoft's internal Windows Core OS (WCOS) project is no easy task. Even we find it difficult to keep up with all the different codenames, plans, and changes being made to Windows with Windows Core OS. So, to try and keep things in line we've compiled this ultimate guide for Windows Core OS, CShell, and everything in between.


Windows Core OS is something we've been writing about since early 2017 and has been in the works for much longer. It's the future of Windows, which takes the shared code of OneCore and builds a modern, legacy-free OS on top of it. Windows Core OS along with CShell allows Microsoft to quickly build new versions of Windows 10, and share common components and features across different device types and WCOS versions quickly and easily.


Let's get into the nitty-gritty details.


What is Windows Core OS?

To answer this question, we first have to explain what Windows Core OS isn't. Today, Windows 10 is a number of different operating systems across the many devices types it can run on. There's Windows 10 for desktops, Windows 10 for HoloLens, Windows 10 for IoT devices, Windows 10 for Surface Hub, Windows 10 for Xbox, and there was also a Windows 10 for phones. Although these are all Windows 10, they're all technically different operating systems that don't run very well on devices they are not designed for. Windows 10 desktop, for example, would be a terrible experience on a phone, and vice versa.


All of these versions of Windows 10 do share universal elements, however, such as OneCore and OneCoreUAP which are layers of the operating system that you can find on all of these versions of Windows 10 that enable things like the Universal Windows Platform. But the rest of everything included in these operating systems are specific to that version of Windows. Not everything is interchangeable or shareable between them, as most of these features have to be rewritten each time by the teams working on these individual versions of the OS for them to function.


A great example of this is with the Start menu and Action Center on Windows 10 for desktop and Windows 10 Mobile. While Microsoft tried very hard to make these experiences seem the same, underneath they were very different. Keen-eyed users would have likely noticed differences in features between the two Start experiences, and that's because for one feature to be available on both platforms, it needed to be built twice, not just once. Live tile folders is a perfect example of this, a feature that was first found on Mobile took over a year to appear on the desktop.

Windows Core OS is the future of Windows.

As it stands today, there's a lot of extra work and overhead Microsoft needs to deal with every time it wants to build a version of Windows 10 for a new device type, such as foldables. None of the versions of Windows 10 on the market today would be a good fit foldable PCs, and while Microsoft could start building yet another version of Windows 10 for this category of devices, they'd also have to rebuild many of the existing features and functions you can find on other versions of Windows 10 already to ensure those features behave and operate correctly on this form factor. It's a waste of resources and effort.


That's where Windows Core OS comes in. With Windows Core OS, Microsoft is building a universal base for Windows that can be used across all these different devices. Instead of having to develop a new version of Windows 10 for every new device type that comes along, Microsoft can simply use Windows Core OS, pull in features and functions it has already built for it, and create it as an OS for that device type, with way less overhead and resources.


Windows Core OS strips Windows down to the bare minimum. It doesn't have legacy Win32 program support, or feature any legacy shell interfaces, and sticks to UWP as a core for the operating system as it's lighter and already universal. From there, Microsoft can build out Windows Core OS with different components and features that it can then apply to devices where necessary. But this time, those components and features can be shared across the many different devices Windows Core OS will run on.


It's essentially a modular platform. Any feature or function Microsoft builds for it can then be applied to any Windows Core OS device that it wants. For example, let's imagine Microsoft builds out Win32 support as a component for Windows Core OS for desktop and laptop devices. Since that work has now already been done, Microsoft can also bring that Win32 component to HoloLens 2 or Surface Hub 2X running Windows Core OS, enabling that functionality on those experiences too.


The big selling point for Windows Core OS for Microsoft is that for the people working on Windows, it takes way less time and resources to build new Windows experiences when it's required. If Microsoft or any of its partners want to build new device form factors running Windows, they no longer have to wait years for Microsoft to build up a version of Windows 10 that works for it. Using Windows Core OS, they can create new Windows experiences in a fraction of the time and way more efficiently.


What is CShell for Windows?


The shared component idea extends to the UI as well, thanks to a universal shell Microsoft has been building called Composable Shell, also known as CShell for short. CShell is the other half of this universal idea for Windows Core OS, and allows Microsoft to build shell experiences that can be shared across devices, and even bundled up together where it makes sense. For example, any shell-facing feature like an Action Center, Start menu, or taskbar, can then be used across all CShell-powered devices without having to rewrite them to fit on different devices every single time.


A great example of this is our exclusive hands-on with CShell back in 2017 before Microsoft decided to kill off its smartphone efforts. Microsoft was working on CShell at the time, and it looked an awful lot like Windows 10's current shell, except it was entirely modern and universal. So when we ran CShell on our Windows Phone, we could see many of the modern desktop experiences already available, such as context menus on Start, and the exact same Action Center found on the desktop.

Imagine a gaming PC that changes to an Xbox "game mode" when an Xbox controller is connected.

So Microsoft can build different shells with CShell, and share elements between them without having to rewrite them. It can build out a true desktop CShell experience, and a true mobile CShell experience, and share components between them. In some cases, Microsoft can even bundle multiple different CShell experiences onto a device, and boot into them where it makes sense.


Let's imagine Microsoft decides to finally build a Surface Phone running Windows Core OS. It'll feature a mobile experience primarily, but if you connected it to a Continuum dock, Microsoft could also bundle the actual desktop experience it built with CShell. So instead of getting a fake desktop experience as you did with Windows 10 Mobile, you'd actually boot into the real desktop experience Microsoft built for CShell, that runs on actual desktops. That's pretty cool.


Unfortunately, Microsoft seems just about done with trying to build mobile devices, so we can apply this idea to something a little more plausible. Tablets! Microsoft can build out dedicated desktop and tablet mode experiences with CShell, and apply them to 2-in-1 devices like the Surface Pro. So whenever the user enters tablet mode, instead of getting a mediocre experience, it can boot into a dedicated tablet mode that Microsoft built for CShell. On some devices, maybe tablet mode is the only experience available, and on others, there's more than one.


Or imagine a gaming PC, which when being used with a mouse and keyboard uses an actual regular desktop interface with a taskbar and Start menu. When an Xbox controller is connected, however, it boots into a "Game Mode" that enables the same Xbox shell you can find on Xbox consoles, except it's all running on your PC and has all your PC games ready to go. That would be pretty cool. These ideas are all very possible with CShell and Windows Core OS.


The different flavors of Windows Core OS

Now we know all about Windows Core OS and what it is — let's take a look at all the different configurations of Windows Core OS we know about so far. Officially, Microsoft has announced two devices that run Windows Core OS: Surface Hub 2X and HoloLens 2. While the company hasn't yet talked about Windows Core OS itself, it has started showing it off in demos when showcasing these devices.


There are a whole bunch of different codenames and words used to describe the different versions of WCOS. So we've tried to include all the names Microsoft uses for these editions of Windows Core OS internally.


We'll update this page periodically with new versions of Windows Core OS as they become known. For now, we've got three to talk about that are in active development internally. The images below are mock-ups created by Windows Central, that are an accurate depiction of the real thing that we've seen internally. To protect sources where necessary, we've recreated what we've seen as close to the real thing as possible. As is the nature of pre-release software however, things could change and look different when they ship.




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