Thursday, February 17, 2011

The State of Windows

I write a lot about Apple for this site when I choose to cover the tech beat, and there are plenty of reasons: Apple products are numerically fewer than products from the company's many competitors, making it much easier to talk a little about everything Apple is doing. Apple stuff is often trend-setting, and their products often depart from the established norm. Apple, as a company, retains a sense of showmanship and mystery that makes its every keynote seem a bit like Christmas even when they're talking about routine updates of products that I'll never make enough money to own.

Microsoft's keynotes, on the other hand, play out more like an elementary school assembly where the speaker isn't quite sure what the audience is there to hear. I don't write about them because, most of the time, they're either completely devoid of newsworthy tidbits, or completely boring to the non-technical audience I assume I'm writing for over here.

That doesn't mean I don't use and like some of Microsoft's products - at home, aside from my trusty iPhone and with the exception of an iMac I picked up used mere months ago*, I've always had, used, and generally been happy with lowly Windows PCs. The numbers say that almost 70 percent of Charge Shot!!!'s readership is in the same boat - obviously Microsoft has done something right with its flagship operating system, because most of us haven't stopped using it since the mid-90s. The present, however, is only part of the picture.
First and foremost, forgive me if it takes a bit to get to the point.

This post was spurred by the imminent release of Windows 7 Service Pack 1 - for those of you who just let Windows install its updates without worrying too much about it, Windows service packs are big ol' free updates that generally bring performance and functional enhancements to your operating system. Windows XP gained a ton of modern security features with its second service pack, and Windows Vista was basically unusable before its first - a service pack changes way more than an ordinary security update does, and for this reason they've historically excited enthusiasts (like yours truly) and horrified IT staff (like yours truly).

That being said, Windows 7's first service pack is mostly composed of previously-released security patches and fixes. In a word, it's boring.

This speaks to the general strength of Windows 7, which has been a major critical and commercial success for Microsoft since it launched in October 2009. Its first service pack, for the perhaps the first time in Windows service pack history, hasn't been necessary to make the operating system recommendable. Windows 7 is a good operating system, and I've been using it and encouraging others to use it since its release.

Windows 7 is the absolute best version of Windows 95 that could possibly exist. That's what it all comes down to - that's the result of years of development on Microsoft's part. It's an operating system that glides smoothly on just about any computer sold in the last five years. It covers all of the basics, and it does so reasonably well.

By the same token, Windows 7 runs on the best traditional PCs that could possibly exist. Sure, hardware is going to get better and faster and smaller and more streamlined as time marches on, but the PC circa Windows 95 - the isolated workstation on which you install programs and do the bulk of your computing - has been comparatively stagnant for the last five years or so. Compare a computer from 2001 to a computer from 2006, and you'll likely see two completely different beasts. Compare a computer from 2006 to a computer from 2011, and you'll see two different versions of the same thing - the 2011 computer will be able to do everything the 2006 computer could do, just faster. In many ways, we have reached a logical endpoint for the traditional laptop or desktop PC. We can put it into a faster or a smaller or a sleeker package, but on some fundamental level the same experience is being provided.

This experience, the Windows experience that most of us have shared since the late 90s, is what Microsoft is good at. Between Windows 95 and now, in fact, they've become great at it. I barely have any complaints about Windows 7. It refines and builds on the basic Windows experience in natural and beneficial ways. Standard users, power users, and IT people alike seem generally satisfied with most things it sets out to do.

So far it sounds like the state of Windows is pretty good, right? Its most recent release is settings all kinds of sales records, it's got like eighteen times more marketshare than its nearest rival (Windows stands at about 90%, Mac OS X at a bit more than 5%), and it has done well with reviewers to boot. What's the problem?

The problem is that Microsoft, despite the massive amounts of money and manpower at its disposal, seems utterly unable to make Windows work for it on anything but a regular ol' computer. This is a problem because, when you look at the tech trends that have people excited today, regular ol' computers are decidedly absent from the list.

Consider Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's answer to the iPhone and the plethora of phones running Google's Android. By most accounts, WP7 is a well-constructed OS that's mostly competitive with its adversaries, but because of lackluster advertising and lateness to market, its sales have been anemic. How often have you heard people talking about Windows phones? That's Microsoft's problem, in a lot of cases: it's not that it doesn't offer a product that competes with Android or Steam or Gmail or Skype, it's just that no one's excited about it. No one knows anything about it.

The same is true of Microsoft's entry into the burgeoning tablet market. Look at the iPad: it's selling faster than anyone (myself included) could have anticipated, it's basically strangling the netbook market, and it's doing so basically unopposed by Microsoft or Google. Google's Android operating system is making the jump to tablets this year, and it that's awesome, but do you know what Microsoft's tablet strategy is right now?

In the near-term, Microsoft is offering slow-ass Windows 7 tablets that are basically netbooks with touchscreens. In the long-term, the company plans to offer a versions of Windows 8 that will run on iPad-esque hardware.

This strategy makes me so, so mad, and it does so for several reasons. The first is that Windows 8 isn't due out before late 2012, which gives the iPad and any of Google's iPad competitors at least two years' head start. Consider that the iPhone is barely three years old, and you know that Microsoft is in a bit of a bad situation.

The second thing that makes me mad is that the Windows 8 that will run on tablets is just Windows - the intuitive touch interface that helps the iPhone and Android devices make so much sense is going to be shoved aside in favor of some clunky touch interface running on top of regular Windows, which is a strategy that Microsoft has been trying for something like a decade.

The state of Windows right now isn't bad, but the state of Windows going forward is pretty shortsighted: the whole house of cards is built upon the assumption that everyone will always want to run some variant of Windows 95 on everything forever. That's not a true assumption, and if Microsoft wants Windows to stay relevant, it's going to have to do something more convincing.

* the iMac also has Windows installed on it, so it might not count