Difference engine: Why 10, not 9, is better than 8

IN THE end, Microsoft fooled everyone. The replacement for its widely disparaged Windows 8 operating system turned out to be not Windows 9, as expected, but Windows 10. No explanation, other than marketing waffle, was given as to why the company should skip a release number. “We know that based on the product coming, and just how different our approach overall, it just wouldn’t be right to call it Windows 9,” Microsoft executive Terry Myerson told the press on revealing an early development version of Windows 10 (formerly code-named “Threshold”) in San Francisco on September 30th. Within minutes, various presumed reasons had gone viral.

Was it to stop Apple continuing to steal a march with its tenth-generation operating system (OS X) for Macintosh computers, which have made steady inroads (albeit from a minuscule base) into Microsoft’s vast enterprise market? Could it have been to commemorate the ten releases of the various 32-bit versions of  Windows to date? More fancifully, did the company avoid the number nine because the Japanese character for it (kyuu) could also be read as torture?

Or was it, as several software developers tweeted, because so many legacy applications first check whether the computer being used is running a version of Windows beginning with number nine (as in Windows 95 or Windows 98). Had Microsoft’s new operating system been called Windows 9, it was argued, serious compatibility issues could have arisen.

Others wondered whether Microsoft was simply trying to distance its new operating system as much as possible from its unfortunate predecessor. With its touch-based approach, Windows 8’s radical interface using “Live Tiles” instead of the familiar “Start Menu” alienated users by requiring them to change their way of working too drastically. Meanwhile, employers balked at the cost of buying pricey touch-sensitive screens, as well as having to retrain staff to navigate around a computer desktop by touch rather than by keyboard and mouse.

So much for the musings of the Twittersphere. There may have been grains of truth in several such suggestions, but Babbage prefers to believe the last one: namely, that Microsoft wanted to draw a line under its Windows 8 embarrassment, and show the world it had embarked on a whole new endeavour. From what was revealed last week, it is clear that Windows 10 is more—a great deal more—than just a tweak of the Windows 8 code-base, and ought, quite rightly, to be seen as a break with the past.

That departure from previous practice extends not just to the user-interface and underlying software, but also to the way Microsoft does business. Having been late to embrace the internet and slow to appreciate the significance of mobile and cloud computing, many might say such changes were not before time.

Microsoft has learned much from its recent fumbles with Windows 8—as it did likewise when forced to rush out Windows 7 to replace its dismal Windows Vista. By all accounts, Windows 10 is to be all that Windows 8 would have been, had hubris not blurred the company’s vision. Spurred by the flop of Windows 8 and its half-baked update Windows 8.1, not to mention new management at the top of the firm, Microsoft has begun to take users’ complaints more seriously than ever.

This time, instead of insisting on a one-size-fits-all interface for Windows, whether on a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop, the operating system will be able to recognise which platform it is running on and adjust the screen size accordingly, while loading only those features appropriate. On phones and tablets, for instance, Windows 10 will slip seamlessly into the appropriate role, activating touch-sensitive gestures and all the small-screen features needed. On a laptop or desktop, the operating system will morph into something resembling Windows 7, navigated by keyboard and mouse with a welcoming Start menu at the bottom-left-hand corner of the screen. Whether used by office workers, home users, hackers or professionals, the aim is to let each choose the interface and experience he or she is most comfortable with.

Despite Windows 10’s chameleon behaviour, all platforms using it will share the same unified code-base, and be capable of running the same applications, downloaded from the same app store serving all Windows devices, be they phones, tablets or computers. To make that happen, Microsoft has launched a far more comprehensive public-testing period than it has ever attempted before. Anyone can sign up for this Insider Program to receive a free preview copy of Windows 10, along with an app for registering suggestions and complaints. Be warned, though, the preview copy is very much a work in progress, and nowhere near stable enough for routine use. Many more tools and features will be added as, and when, they are deemed ready for public testing. The finished version of Windows 10 is not expected until later next year.

What intrigues Babbage most, though, is that Windows 10 is, in a sense, the end of the line. There will be no follow-up; no Windows 11 in two or three years’ time. Nor will there be any blockbuster service packs in the meantime to correct buggy code and add missing features. Instead, incremental improvements for Windows 10 will be rolled out on a regular basis, perhaps every month or so, similar to the way monthly patches and bug-fixes for Windows have long been distributed.

By all accounts, these rolling updates will be an “opt in” service, so IT departments can control precisely what corporate users get their hands on. For consumers, having the option to update their systems automatically from the cloud will be a god-send. As it is, upgrading Windows installations can be a tedious, disk-shuffling affair, not for the faint of heart. But it need not be so. Macintosh users can upgrade their operating systems from one version to the next from Apple’s app store for free these days, using just a few clicks of a mouse. Linux users have been doing something similar for years.

For Microsoft, the consequences of all this could be huge. Instead of treating each major release of Windows as a whole new product that existing customers must pay $120 or more to install, henceforth Windows upgrades are to be streamed to users as a service. Put another way, the company is moving from selling software licences to offering cloud-based services. Ironically, the best way to make that happen might be to give the basic service—rolling upgrades for Windows 10—away for free, rather than charge an annual subscription.

That is not as radical as it may seem. Apple stopped charging Macintosh owners for upgrading OS X a year ago. Meanwhile, Microsoft already gives Windows upgrades away to users with devices that have screens of nine inches or less (ie, Windows phones and tablets). It also made Windows 8.1 available free to existing Windows 8 users. Presumably, it would continue to charge original-equipment manufacturers for installing Windows 10 on new devices.

Free upgrades could also be the inducement that persuades the hordes of PC users who refuse to upgrade from older versions of Windows to do precisely that. Currently, Windows 8 and 8.1 account for little more than 12% of the PC user-base, according to Net Applications, a web-tracking firm. Meanwhile, 76% of PC users have remained loyal to Windows 7 or the even older Windows XP, despite all support for the latter having ceased last April. Such users have steadfastly refused to adopt Windows 8 because they find it too strange and demanding. Windows 10, with its return to traditional ways of doing things, should be a lot more to their liking.

Ever since Windows 8 was released, sales of Windows 7 licences have increased rather than decreased. Businesses have continued to buy computers with Windows 7 pre-installed or have bought licences to downgrade Windows 8 machines to meet staff objections. However, come October 31st, Microsoft will stop selling copies of Windows 7 to system builders. It ceased offering retail copies a year ago.

There are now over a billion recalcitrant Windows users around the world, waiting for a good reason to upgrade. Offering them a free licence for Windows 10, along with free rolling upgrades thereafter, would be the smartest move Microsoft could make to tempt them back into the fold. Even if only half were to take advantage of such an offer, the numbers involved would boost Microsoft’s cloud-based business spectacularly.

In all it hopes to achieve, Windows 10 is quite the biggest gamble Microsoft has ever attempted. If the company pulls it off, then Windows 10 is set to become the most successful operating system of all time, eclipsing even the legendary Windows XP. Babbage relishes the thought that the coming version of Windows may well be the end of the line—especially now it seems to have been built not merely for replacement, but for continual evolution. That is precisely how many other things in life ought to be designed.

Article source: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2014/10/difference-engine?fsrc=rss

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