The Microsoft 'Election'

By Josh Sacks 

Like many Americans this week, I'm faced once again with that perplexing quadrennial conundrum: whether to replace an incumbent that's served me well for the most part with a challenger that offers a radically new direction. That's right, I must decide whether to upgrade to Windows 8. Oh, and I also need to decide which presidential candidate to vote for.
 
This year, these decisions aren't as different as they may seem. On paper, Windows 7 promised a big improvement over its predecessor, Vista - which, like its political corollary, wasn't an especially high bar to clear. It was slick, looked good on a big screen, and offered hope to those disillusioned by its predecessor's complete reversal on promises of efficiency and reliability.
 
That's not to say it has been without disappointment. When I inaugurated my hard drive with Windows 7 in 2009, I was hoping for a clean break from the problems of yesteryear. I was enchanted by the notions of a faster file system, less in-your-face security through a smarter User Account Control, and a promise to be the most transparent desktop in history. Though those claims weren't fully realized on day one, I was impressed with the quick boot speed, despite the mess its predecessor left in my registry. And most important, there hadn't been any major kernel attacks in the first nine months.
 
Of course, there were some claims Windows 7 failed to deliver immediately. It promised that if I liked my drivers, I could keep them. When it came to my video card, however, the new DirectX forced me to upgrade to a minimum essential driver pack that taxed my system for features I'd never use - just so others with preexisting resource-intensive applications would be guaranteed compatibility. Further, Windows 7 promised fair examinations of suspect code through Data Execution Protection, but which in practice proved too difficult, and the malicious code quarantine remains open to this day.
 
I'd hoped that these issues would be resolved in the midterm service pack. Alas, I was disappointed when Internet Explorer 9 failed to match its competitors' speed, so much so that its JavaScript engine could have rightly been called "TeaScript." The stated goals of the second service pack - a balanced approach to reducing memory deficits, more efficient CPU use, and not starting a war with my PlayStation - are necessary incremental changes, but far from the hope and change Windows 7 once promised.
 
Idle Promises?
In making this solemn choice, I must also examine the challenger on the merits. Windows 8 promises a very new direction from the past, with a look and feel unrecognizable from recent previous iterations (including Vista which was designed by the exact same people). In fact, it offers a positively retrograde view nostalgic of simpler interfaces from good times past.
 
But looking the part isn't everything; substance must be considered. Unlike the incumbent with its context menus and ability to display information in different ways, Windows 8 is driven by new Metro Live Tiles, which are completely devoid of nuance and detail. Sure, they'll show anything to please the user at any moment - lest the user switch to the legacy desktop; however, in the end they're a (literal) two-dimensional view of the world. Today, data needs to be more relevant, timely, and/or true than ever before. Do we really want complex information distilled into pretty pictures and round numbers inside big squares?
 
Moreover, Windows 8 makes it exceptionally difficult to make decisions about your own system. Care to set a static IP? Good luck finding that option in the truly Orwellian-named Control Panel. Trying to use a device with unsigned drivers? Windows 8 makes it so difficult in hopes that the device will self-uninstall. Want to abort a loading program you didn't mean to start? Task manager won't let you for even the life of the kernel. Looking for the Start Menu we've accepted as part of our desktop fabric for years and millions have come to rely on? Well, stop feeling so entitled.
 
These frustrating changes aren't by accident, nor are they a noble experiment to improve computing for the masses. Instead, they further two narrow but related goals: 1) create a unified experience for the 1 percent who buy Microsoft tablets; and 2) appeal to the lowest common denominator of computer users, like my grandmother, who find drill-down menus to be as complex as drilling for deep-sea oil. 
 
User Indecision
Having a one-size-fits-all experience across both tablets and desktops undoubtedly has serious drawbacks; after all, even Apple - the company Microsoft unapologetically seeks to emulate - doesn't even attempt this. But in doing so, Windows 8 blatantly disregards the needs of the other 99 percent by making mouse and keyboard input almost an afterthought in this radical release. Microsoft must believe - and arguably not without analogue - that this 99 percent will accept a user interface that favors the 1 percent of touch users because someday they might join those privileged few. Worse yet, Microsoft dismisses its core constituency - business users - by claiming they removed the Start Menu because Customer Experience statistics showed an 11 percent drop in Start usage because users prefer "pinning" programs to the task bar instead. This of course ignores the fact that when Microsoft made the decision to drop Start last year, 60 percent of corporate customers were still using Windows XP, according to Forrester Research - an OS that predates the pinning feature. And surely they must know that most corporate IT departments prevent their computers from reporting these automated usage statistics back to Microsoft in the first place.
 
So this is the choice I'm faced with. A slightly flawed but ultimately reliable incumbent offering little improvement over the status quo versus a challenger pledging a big leap forward - despite packaging it in the visuals of the past.
 
Maybe I'll just flip a coin.
 
About the author:
Josh Sacks is a senior associate with an Arlington, Virginia-based technology consulting firm. Interested readers may contact him at Joshua.sacks@gmail.com to debate the merits of each OS candidate.
 

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