Every other bit of software feels like a choice, but it is still the case, after several prestige launches over twenty years, with Windows it is more a case of take it or leave it. Mention Vista too loudly at one of the launch parties next week and you’ll get shown the door, metaphorically speaking, and accused politely by someone with a Californian accent of dwelling on the past.
But why is Microsoft launching its second major operating system in two and a half years? Market demand perhaps? To fix some great technical lack? Branded the ugly duckling after its premature launch, everyone knows Vista now runs well on any PC bought in the last two years and is an incomparable advance on the 1990’s museum exhibit, Windows XP.
It seems that Microsoft, uniquely, is a company able to muck up one expensive and important product launch and come back not long after with a second equally expensive answer to a problem entirely of its own making.
There is barely a single feature in Windows 7 that couldn’t either be added to Vista as an optional upgrade or handled by a service pack. There are baubles in the kernel that relate to its thread management, a revised graphics subsystem, tweaks to the direction of its architecture and a new layer of support for more recent technology, all worthy upgrades, but none of them are exactly unexpected or revolutionary.
Microsoft can do this in part because its competition is too self-contained to chase percentages. You can turn smug and pay extra for a Mac, turn techie and load Linux, turn Google and wait for whatever Chrome turns into, or just wait for the plethora of mobile operating systems to somehow change or make obsolete the bog-standard PC. Ridiculously, the biggest short-term competition for Windows 7 will probably come from die-hards sticking to XP or even Vista.
Given that operating systems as comprehensive as Windows are expensive, complex and just hard to do without taking compromising short-cuts, it could be that the whole model is what’s at fault. Nobody will ever beat Windows - nor does the world want them to - the world will just change in such a way that the model suddenly looks out of time.
Windows started as a software alternative to the tyranny of the mainframe-in-a-room, the idea that computing cycles are precious things best doled out by data technocrats. It won that war but has ended up being tyranny in a box. It’s a better tyranny, of course, but you have to wonder how long the world can go on like this, forking out a license tax to turn on PCs that are increasingly just access points for distributed web technologies that could also sit atop much humbler operating systems.
In an era where operating systems remake themselves daily, sometimes hourly, the idea of hauling a DVD out of a box and loading a brand new world can look like an obsolete money-making exercise. That’s probably because in some respects it is, but consumers feel reassured because at least someone has come up with a statement as to what the world should look like in future. Windows makes the world more technologically predictable, less chaotic.
It might be killed by the cloud, it might not, but I have a feeling that Windows 7 will not quite be the last of its kind. There will be a Windows 8 and probably a Windows 9. Software changes rapidly but the world in which it operates almost always lags.
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