The “Babbage” blog at The Economist has an interesting and thought-provoking article on the continuing use of the Windows XP operating system, first introduced in September, 2001. Something like 600 million copies of XP have been sold (mostly pre-installed on new PCs), making it the most used OS ever. The article addresses the question, which has been raised before, “What comes after XP?”.
Microsoft has, of course, provided two “official” answers: Windows Vista, introduced in January 2007, and Windows 7, introduced in October 2009. Vista was neither a commercial nor a technical success; as the Economist correspondent says, “Of Vista, the less said the better”. I have a laptop which came with Vista pre-installed. As has been my practice for about a decade, I set it up for dual boot with Linux. I’d estimate that it has spent about 98% of its life running Linux, and more than 90% of the time running Windows just installing patches and updates. Vista had some good underlying ideas, particularly with regard to improving security; but those ideas were all too often implemented in a very clunky, user-antagonistic way. In contrast, although I have not, personally, spent any significant time using Windows 7, the consensus reaction of knowledgeable Windows 7 users that I know is that it is a much better effort than Vista.
So what’s the problem, then? Many users, seeing the negative reaction to Vista, decided to stick with XP. Although they might think about moving to Windows 7, given its much more positive reception, this isn’t entirely straightforward. Upgrading from Vista to 7 is pretty straightforward, but upgrading from XP directly to 7 is considerably trickier. For enterprise customers, who have large numbers of machines to upgrade, Microsoft offers assistance (for a price, naturally and reasonably enough), but small operations still using XP have a less clear upgrade path. This is one reason that it is only now that Windows 7, almost three years after its introduction, is about to surpass Windows XP in the number of licensed copies sold.
The upgrade conundrum is made trickier by two things. The first is the (relatively) imminent end of support for Windows XP. Microsoft’s current statement is that Windows XP, Service Pack 3, will cease to receive bug fixes or security updates as of April 8, 2014. Given the historical record of PC operating systems with respect to security issues, only a cockeyed optimist would regard continuing to use XP much beyond that point as prudent, even ignoring that fact that Microsoft, historically, has not really been a poster child for PC security, at least in a positive sense.
The second complication concerns the lifetime of Windows 7 itself, and what is to follow it. Microsoft has said that the next version of Windows, Windows 8, will be released this autumn. There’s nothing problematic about that per se; but Windows 8 is, especially from the average user’s point of view, a very different animal from Windows 7. It has a new user interface, Metro, which is dramatically different from the traditional (since Windows 95) Windows look; Metro, instead, is heavily oriented towards touchscreen devices.
For the past 17 years, Microsoft has taught a generation of PC users how to navigate around their computers intuitively, by using a mouse and keyboard to scroll through drop-down menus and then click on the application they want to run. Microsoft will now ditch all that in favour of a start screen comprising a mosaic of brightly coloured tiles, which serve both as short-cuts to favourite applications and as widgets for reporting data from programs that are already running.
Microsoft’s featuring this interface is perfectly understandable; in the competition to supply a mobile device OS, it is running third, after Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The feedback I’ve heard from those that have tried out Windows 8, and its interface, is that Metro is a cool design, although there are some glitches, And Microsoft desperately needs to get on board with the mobile device market. which historically has eluded its grasp.
Today, the fast-growing business of portable computing is dominated by devices that use either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system. Thus, with Microsoft’s operating systems installed on around 90% of all desktops, laptops and notebooks, every tablet bought to replace a PC means one less copy of Windows is sold. The latest projections have tablets outselling PCs within a year or so. Hence the urgency at the software giant’s Redmond headquarters.
But, because the user interface of Windows 8 is significantly different from that of its predecessors (back almost two decades), it is likely to meet with some lack of understanding. if not hostility, from ordinary users. The interface works well, on a touch-screen device, but (at least in the preliminary version I’ve seen) has no provision to revert to a more traditional Window screen, with a START button.
There’s the rub. With Windows 8 optimised for portable devices with touchscreens, it becomes a pain in the proverbial for people trying to do real work using a keyboard and mouse on a PC. If, for instance, an application or tool being sought does not have a tile of its own on the start screen, the user has to hunt for it by typing its name into a search box. That quickly becomes the kind of chore PC users really hate.
Another wrinkle has to do with Windows 8 on mobile devices, many of which use ARM processors, which are more frugal consumers of battery power than Intel chips. It seems that Microsoft’s current requirements for such machines to be labeled “Windows 8 compatible” may prevent the user from installing any alternative software. Microsoft seems to long for the “walled garden” approach, in which the manufacturer controls, as Apple does, what software can be run on the machine.
If you use a traditional laptop or desktop PC, and are still running Windows XP, I would strongly suggest that you start to consider what comes next. Here are some possible choices:
- You can try out the preview edition of Windows 8, and see if it will work for you. (An ISO installation image can be downloaded here.) You, in this context, means yourself and any other users whose machines you maintain. Even if the new version works like a charm, if your users stage a rebellion against the new interface, you’re going to have problems.
- You can, as the “Babbage” correspondent suggests, start stockpiling copies of Windows 7, which presumably will be supported longer than Windows XP, and which does have a conventional user interface.
- You can stick with XP, and hope that Windows 8 bombs in the marketplace, forcing Microsoft either to extend XP support, bring out a new versions (Windows 9?) with better support for the classical interface, or both. I really do not recommend this option.
I also really urge you not to delay thinking about this for too long. OS upgrades are, admittedly, (to use The Economist‘s expression) a pain in the proverbial; but having to do one under the gun, because the users are having a mutiny, or because necessary applications are failing, is a lot less fun.