FIRST, an embarrassing admission: your correspondent uses an 11-year-old operating system on his work-a-day computer. Sure, his copy of Windows XP Professional—shorn of all annoying craplets and services, and with no silly eye-candy to slow things down—has been updated and patched religiously, purged of all detritus on a regular basis, and reinstalled afresh on a number of occasions. He has four other Windows XP machines humming away on his network, all similarly maintained. They have proved a good deal more responsive and at least as secure and stable as any of the Macs and Linux machines sharing the network.
Windows XP (for “eXPerience”) went on sale in Sepember 2001. Counting all versions, some 600m copies of XP have been installed on personal computers around the world—making it the most widely used operating system of all time. There have been two subsequent generations of Windows since—Vista in January 2007 and Windows 7 in October 2009. Of Vista, the less said the better. By contrast, Windows 7 has proved a worthy successor to XP, and one that Vista should have been but bungled by being too locked down and nannyish.
What success Vista has had in the market has come mainly as a result of being pre-installed by manufacturers of new computers. The same goes for Windows 7, though more and more XP users have tended to leapfrog Vista when upgrading their computers. This month (July 2012), after almost three years of edging closer, Windows 7 will overtake XP as the world’s most popular operating system.
That is happening just as Microsoft would have users believe Windows 7 is coming to the end of its life. Its replacement, Windows 8, is due this coming October. Those keen to try it have been able to download a free preview version. By all accounts, Windows 8 is slick and stable, booting up and shutting down faster than even Windows 7, while delivering a browsing experience second to none.
But Windows 8 is nothing if not controversial. It represents Microsoft’s most ambitious overhaul of its operating system since it introduced the start button and task bar with Windows 95 in October 1995. It is also Microsoft’s biggest leap of faith—with the potential to become an even bigger debacle than Vista.
For the past 17 years, Microsoft has taught a generation of PC users how to navigate around their computers intuitively, by using a mouse and keyboard to scroll through drop-down menus and then click on the application they want to run. Microsoft will now ditch all that in favour of a start screen comprising a mosaic of brightly coloured tiles, which serve both as short-cuts to favourite applications and as widgets for reporting data from programs that are already running.
The concept behind Windows 8’s “Metro” interface is refreshingly novel and ingenious. It works particularly well on the touchscreen of a smartphone or tablet computer. Indeed, Windows 8 is not just an improved version of Windows 7, but also Microsoft’s last-ditch attempt to remain relevant in the computing world of tomorrow—a market where tablets and smartphones rule and PCs become less important.
Today, the fast-growing business of portable computing is dominated by devices that use either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system. Thus, with Microsoft’s operating systems installed on around 90% of all desktops, laptops and notebooks, every tablet bought to replace a PC means one less copy of Windows is sold. The latest projections have tablets outselling PCs within a year or so. Hence the urgency at the software giant’s Redmond headquarters.
That is why Microsoft has put so much emphasis on making sure Windows 8 plays especially well on touchscreen-enabled tablets. In that, it has been singularly successful. However, as tablets and smartphones need to run practically all day before being recharged, yet have little room for bulky batteries, they have long since adopted the frugal family of ARM processors rather than the thirstier Intel and AMD chips used in PCs (see “The empire strikes back”, March 16th 2012). To get a foot in the door, Microsoft has been forced to port Windows 8 to all the popular ARM processors.
There’s the rub. With Windows 8 optimised for portable devices with touchscreens, it becomes a pain in the proverbial for people trying to do real work using a keyboard and mouse on a PC. If, for instance, an application or tool being sought does not have a tile of its own on the start screen, the user has to hunt for it by typing its name into a search box. That quickly becomes the kind of chore PC users really hate.
Nor is there any simple way to bypass the Metro interface and make Windows 8 default to a classical Windows interface for those without a touchscreen, and who prefer working with a keyboard and mouse. It is, of course, possible to dig down through Metro to get to something PC users find more familiar. But they still have to start with Metro, and they still have to return to it when needing to do something different. Workarounds will, no doubt, emerge as PC users vent their frustration with Metro’s way of doing things. Indeed, independent websites are already springing up help PC users deal with Windows 8’s many annoyances.
Microsoft’s determination to force customers to accept the same Metro experience—whether using a phone, a tablet, a computer, a game console or even a TV remote control—seems remarkably risky. For such a clever piece of software, this straight-jacket approach to the user-interface is puzzling. The lack of any easy way of configuring Windows 8 to one’s personal preferences is going to be enough to put many a PC user off.
Certainly, it is enough to make your correspondent think about grabbing a couple of copies of Windows 7 Professional Upgrade before they disappear from the shelves. That will not happen overnight. But when Microsoft ceases to support Windows XP with security patches—April 8th 2014 is the official cut-off date—bargain versions of Windows 7 could by then be in short supply.
Anyone contemplating doing the same should first download a copy of Microsoft’s “Upgrade Advisor”. This will test his computer’s software and hardware for compatibility, and see what drivers need to be upgraded beforehand. He should also download a copy of the Microsoft tutorial “Windows Easy Transfer”. Migrating from Vista to Windows 7 is straightforward, but upgrading from XP is much trickier (see “Microsoft’s seventh seal”, October 23rd 2009). Within enterprises, IT managers needing to upgrade hundreds, or even thousands, of PCs can always subscribe to Microsoft’s Windows Intune service. For around $11 per seat per month, upgrades are handled painlessly en masse via the cloud.
One alternative approach has crossed your correspondent’s mind. While he believes Windows 8 will be modestly successful on phones and tablets, he expects it to be an even bigger flop than Vista on PCs. So miserable was Vista’s reception that, rather than waiting the usual three to five years between releases, Microsoft rushed out its replacement, Windows 7, after little more than two years. What is the betting that Windows 9—offering various tweaks along with the option of a more classical interface—will arrive sometime in 2014? Perhaps not all that long after XP’s final demise…
Powered by Facebook Comments