August 13, 2014
I am no Microsoft Apologist, I am typing this blog post on a Macbook Air (admittedly why I wait for my Surface Pro 3 to ship). But I will explain my reasoning.
When I was 15 Microsoft Released Windows XP. At this time we had two computers at home, and we upgraded one to Windows XP, and left the other running Windows 2000. Apart from the fact that the Luna theme was universally criticised at the time of Launch. This did not stop the theme becoming so entrenched over the next 15 years that people felt difficult to let go of it. I guess humans just find it difficult to let go of familiar things, wether it be a familiar operating system, when Facebook forces change on everyone, or simply when we move on with life.
But as we move on through the various stages of life, so to does the technology industry. Without the under the hood changes that comes with each new release of windows the technology industry would continue to be constrained for innovation (based purely on the Windows market share). I write this not only observing people struggling to let go of Windows XP for purely cosmetic reasons, but having watched a friend refuse to upgrade past OSX Snow Leopard for the same cosmetic reasons.
I guess it shouldn't be surprising that it is the cosmetic things that people focus most on, at the same time missing out on beneficial system level changes. It is these system level changes that made Windows XP a bad operating system. While a massive improvement over Windows ME thanks to Microsoft's decision to bring the NT kernel to consumers, out of the gate it did not have the same level of stability of Windows 2000. There were many reasons to upgrade from Windows 2000 to XP, but none of them were compelling.
I got my first laptop when I went to university in 2004, it came loaded with Windows XP Service Pack 1. No-one knew what Bluetooth was, let alone had a car with it built-in, and WiFi was something that was only beginning to be rolled out on campus (and was still optional in laptops). Students debated the merits of candy bar phones versus flip phones instead of Android vs iOS. At this stage no version of Windows supported either WiFi or Bluetooth, and support was left up to the manufacturer. What consumers were left with was a minefield of inconsistent interfaces, buggy drivers, and a rather poor experience. Lucky Microsoft came to the rescue and that year launched Windows XP Service Pack 2 as a free download.
This innocuous sounding free update was the turning point for Windows XP. Importantly this update included several stability updates which pushed the Windows XP footprint from 128 MiB of RAM to 256 MiB RAM requirement. As the world became more connected the inclusion of a Firewall, standardised WiFi and Bluetooth driver models, and stability improvements are what allowed the operating system to be installed standard for a further 10 years.
By my final year of university my laptop became heavy under the weight of Windows XP as further performance improvements made the operating system ever more RAM hungry. I went and bought myself a new computer, which came pre-loaded with the newly released Windows Vista. I was aware of the bad press surrounding Vista and decided to stick with it once I received my laptop, as a young engineering student I wanted to be running the latest and greatest. Not surprisingly I never had a single issue with this laptop, incase you were wondering, a Lenovo Thinkpad Z61t. It should be of an important note that Lenovo was renown for the lack of bloatware preloaded. This computer was not in anyway special at the time, 2 GiB RAM, Core 2 Duo with Intel GMA graphics.
There were three main issues surrounding Windows Vista. Firstly and most famously was the controversy surrounding the Aero theme. The transparent glass theme looked great, but required a relatively recent graphics chip to run (all new computers at launch met the requirement), and everyone wanted the shiny glass theme. Many people were left upset from not having the glass theme for one of two reasons, many computers sold up until the launch of Windows Vista had incompatible graphics cards to run Aero Glass, and Windows Vista was sold as three SKUs, Pro, Home Premium, and Home Basic. Aero Glass was not provided with Windows Vista Home Basic which was provided with the cheapest laptops and required a modest upgrade fee to get the glass theme.
The second issue was the new driver model. Microsoft had run an extensive public beta programme in the lead up to the Windows Vista launch providing device manufacturers all the details to allow them to be ready for Windows Vista. This time it wasn't the low end of the market that was upset, but the high end gaming market, not because their computer wasn't powerful enough to run Aero Glass, but because their video card did not have drivers Available. It is important to note that this was not Microsoft's fault, but rather device manufacturers dragging their heels in the sand.
It is important to note here that while Windows Vista was not the first 64-bit version of windows, it was the first version of Windows that was 64-bit from launch. The 64-bit version of windows was essentially a rush job, and fared far worse issues than anyone encountered with Windows Vista on the same machine. Using Windows XP 64-bit in the workplace, we would have simple issues that just did not happen at home on my Windows Vista 64-bit laptop. Windows Vista was launched at an important turning point in the computer industry, computers were beginning to be delivered with 4 GiB of RAM, the brick wall for 32-bit systems which forced the adoption of 64-bit. Without the new driver model of Windows Vista, Windows 7 could not have received positive reviews.
The third change was the introduction of User Access Control (UAC). To put this in context, the Windows environment was a runway success of malware and viruses that infested users computers who were none-the-wiser. UAC was introduced to save people from themselves, and subsequently annoyed them when they had to click Allow before they could run the cat screensaver a kind stranger had e-mailed to them. Unfortunately software developers weren't ready for this change, and had been circumventing relatively lax Windows security for years. While Windows had features allowing it to be locked down since NT existed, these were rarely enforced in any environment (work or otherwise) in the pre-Vista world. Developers had mostly been granted local administrator rights on their machines, and wrote software as if that was the case on every computer. You probably had local administrator rights on your home computer (it is your computer after all), so that wasn't really a problem. Windows Vista changed this with the UAC dialogue box. Developers now had to store program data in the appropriate location to avoid the UAC dialogue whenever their programme was run. This change benefited the Windows XP world as software was re-written for Vista to avoid the UAC and allowed IT departments to lock down Windows XP machines, further extending the life of the ageing operating system.
Just like Windows XP SP2 didn't change the driver model from Windows XP, Windows 7 kept the same driver model of Windows Vista. I again bought a new laptop this time with Windows 7. The most important change to Windows this time was purely cosmetic and discussion surrounded the new dual context of the task bar (dubbed the super bar). Having avoided Windows Vista this was many user's first experience with a new version of Windows since Windows XP. Features such as system wide indexed search that debuted in Windows Vista were hailed as the best new features of Windows 7.
Now Microsoft are at a crossroads with Windows 8, it doesn't matter that Windows 8.1 is a good operating System (I use it on my home laptop every day), it doesn't matter that the under the hood changes make it boot quicker, more secure, easier to in-place upgrade, it has been tarnished with the defective brush from influential technology commentators. While Windows 8 was a revolutionary change to Windows, it needs that evolutionary upgrade to gain wider acceptance. While it could be argued that Windows 8.1, and Windows 8.1 Update were those evolutionary upgrades, Microsoft are going to continue to struggle with adoption until they paint it with new Windows 9 branding. It doesn't matter that the start screen is more functional than the crippled start menu included with Windows 7.
Technology is about change, and as fast paced as technology moves, companies struggle with staying relevant as the same time as making technology intuitive. I say this as someone who has observed people struggle with operating an iPad other than to launch apps and return to the home screen at the same time calling it intuitive. Apple recently faced the same struggle with the launch of iOS7, more gesture heavy, received the same "I'm not upgrading", mostly from those still holding onto Windows XP and the classic desktop (Windows 95 mode).
As for the title of this article, well without the driver changes in Windows Vista and the growing pains of it's adoption, then Windows 7 could not have been a success. The same will be true for Windows 9 vs Windows 8 as the new start menu with app tiles, and windowed Modern UI apps is introduced. Windows XP merged the Home and Office experience, and right now we are witnessing these experiences diverge once more. Can Microsoft provide an experience that will appeal to both markets as consumer expectations evolve through increased competition from Apple and Google?