Sunday, December 30, 2012

Windows Wants the Desktop to Die

Windows upgrades are never a simple or straight forward affair, so I put aside the relatively more quiet period near the turn of the year to test upgrading to Windows 8 from a Windows 7 Ultimate installation, given that new computers are soon only going to be sold with the new operating system. I had read mixed reviews but naively hoped that the Vista Disaster would not be repeated. Unfortunately, it seems true that every second Windows release is a complete flop.

With Windows 8 Microsoft corporation is trying to make inroads into the mobile application market they have as good as lost to Apple and Google Android. For people using those perfectly usable and mature operating systems as platforms for mobile communication devices there is little incentive to move over to Windows. To force desktop users to put up with a poorly designed touchscreen button interface means Windows is going to vacate that market too if they don't come up with a new version aimed at business and professional users soon. When Vista came out, serious desktop users stuck with Windows XP, and those who have upgraded to Windows 7 will stick with it until support is no longer available. To date, Windows still dominates the desktop (and laptop) market. The perfect time for business program developers to think about writing for different platforms, such as Linux, and providing an upgrade path.

Ipads and mobile phones have come of age and as multimedia communication devices contribute immensely to networking on the move. Today anybody can skype, email or twitter from their mobile phone handset, and business people, previously dependent on Blackberry devices, have taken full advantage of the availability of alternatives. But social networking does not contribute directly to the balance sheet and real work still takes place at the office with a laptop about the smallest feasible platform for design work using CAD tools, writing reports or specifications, using spreadsheets etc. In most cases a large external screen is a must to be meaningfully productive. To fill such a screen with a few childish application buttons and hide the controls in the corners, as Windows 8 does, whilst removing the start screen to access programs altogether, is both wasteful and a serious misjudgment of the needs of professional users.

There are, of course, already programs on offer to revert to a more usable user interface, in practice to bring the Windows XP or Windows 7 layout back to Windows 8 as an overlay. This in itself makes a statement, namely that Microsoft completely misjudged the needs of desktop users. But why waste hours on upgrading an operating system without gaining anything at all? Or, in fact, losing the functionality of some (not even very old) legacy programs the new operating system cannot handle? What is the point in spending hundreds of pounds in finding new program solutions for no other reason than that Windows want your desktop to look different? Professional computing is still about functionality, not looks, and functionality is sadly missing from the Windows upgrade.

Predictably, the installation routine was not smooth. After installing, several forced restarts were required before Windows managed to present a usable interface at all. The first desktop was bare barring a few non-essential applications and could only be vacated using the Ctrl+Alt+Del key combination. Bravo Windows! What use are touchscreen buttons (on a non-touchscreen monitor) in fancy colour schemes when old-fashioned key shortcuts are the only way to even get started?

Once Windows 8 settled down, there were dozens of Windows updates to install, another indicator of poor user-testing before going to market. This meant another series of computer restarts. Worse, however, repeatedly, Windows failed installing its own updates leaving the user with a system which even according to Microsoft is missing "important" fixes and improvements. After wasting a full day on installing the new Windows operating system and half a day on trying to make it work satisfactorily with the rest of my software it was time to mirror the old Windows 7 back onto the computer which is one of the more stable Windows platforms and a lot faster too than Windows 8.

Well, at least the failed upgrade was cheap (not counting the time) - £25 is an unusually modest price for a Microsoft product. But let's not be fooled. Bill Gates' charitable endeavours have not suddenly been reflected in the pricing structure. It's still "What you pay is what you get", and the upgrade price is a true reflection of the product value, this being Microsoft's cheapest operating system version ever!