I didn't want to write this column. I live as Windows-free an existence as most people can these days. Of course I have to run Windows as part of my job, in order to make sure that Samba, the software I write, will interoperate correctly with all the multiple Windows versions out there. I also have to install some Windows applications using the Open Source Wine project, which emulates Windows on Linux well enough that some binary Windows applications will install and run straight off the DVD. Like most people, there are some Windows applications I just can't do without, although in this case it's my three-year-old son who finds an amazing amount of joy in his toddler games, none of which have yet been ported to Linux. Wine works amazingly well these days for this sort of thing, well enough that my wife no longer complains about the computer "being hard to use".
However, Windows hasn't been my desktop environment for about seven years now. I have found I have no need for it; a Linux desktop does everything I need to do very well. That's not easy to do, as I'm not a casual user. I do tend to have rather demanding requirements for my desktop, as regular readers of this column might note.
Yet Microsoft's recent announcements about "Windows 7", the new version of Windows, find me sitting here feeling I have no choice but to discuss it, or be drowned out as a hopelessly irrelevant columnist. This is the power of the marketing megaphone of the monopoly player on the desktop, even though it isn't my desktop.
According to Microsoft, Windows 7 is the version of Windows everyone has been waiting for. According to the "What's New" section of the Windows 7 website it will be "Faster and Easier", it will "Work your way", and give you "New Possibilities". I must confess it sounds less than thrilling to me, but these are the things the Windows marketers thought it was worth pointing out about the new "center of people's technological solar system" -- to quote Steve Ballmer.
But wait a minute. Let's get in the time machine, go back a few years and take our foot off the crushed butterfly of Windows Vista and look at what was promised for the previous version of Windows. Windows Vista is "safer and more reliable" and there were "dozens of wonderful new features". Dozens! After five and a half years in development, there are dozens of new features.
Of course I'm being overly critical here -- more than a touch of sarcasm -- but I'm sure you get the point. The amazing thing about the world of Windows marketing is that everything a user might want is always available in the next version of Windows. Up until the time that version is released, then after a year or so of the reality of the software sinks in, and the upgrade drums start to beat about how wonderful the next version of Windows is going to be.
I'm reminded of the fictional TV show "Treadmill to Bucks" invented by Stephen King in his wonderful Science Fiction novel The Running Man (Don't confuse this with the Hollywood movie of the same name. Just read the book. In fact, try and forget the movie ever existed, for all Hollywood adaptations of Steven King except “The Shining”.) Destitute patients with a heart condition are "invited" to answer questions on camera whilst walking on a treadmill of ever increasing speed to try and earn money for their relatives. This Windows treadmill never stops, and the endless stream of bucks being spent are those of Microsoft's customers, forever on the road to upgrade nirvana.
I got off this ride some time ago, but surely this must be irritating to customers who just want a version that doesn't become considered obsolete junk as soon as the next version is discussed in the press.
But Windows 7 does seem to be different. The main difference is that it is being massively rushed out the door of Redmond, in rather an unseemly haste. The reason of course is the disaster that was Windows Vista. The marketing hype for Vista is barely dry on the page and yet we're being told Windows 7 is the version everyone has really been waiting for. It does seem that Windows Vista was a failure of epic proportions for Microsoft and the job of the marketing people is now to convince their customers to skip Vista and move directly to Windows 7. A more honest assessment of the Windows 7 hype might be "forget Vista, this is the Windows you really want to upgrade to!"
Yet don't think this means customers have switched to alternative systems -- the lock in effects of the monopoly are far too powerful for that. Both MacOS X and Linux do seem to have enjoyed some modest gains in popularity on the desktop, Linux mainly outside of the USA where disposable income is less, but the majority of desktops are still firmly Windows. No, Windows 7 isn't competing against Linux, Windows 7's main competitor is Windows XP.
Windows XP was so successful, so widespread, that the desire of most customers would be to keep that version around for a much longer time, with updates and security patches as needed, but no radical new version to install. No forced upgrades.
The irony of course is that this is exactly what most modern Linux distributions provide. Yes, they churn new releases out every six months, a change rate much faster than that of Windows. But, unlike Windows, this is a treadmill where the customer -- not the vendor -- has their hand on the speed control. Customers can and do decide to get off the exercise machine, and stay on a particular release that meets their needs and upgrade at their own pace, not at the requirements of a third party. Because the code is Open Source, even if the vendor does not support an older version anymore, there are third parties who can be contracted to maintain versions indefinitely. I know this works as there are companies who do this work for my own project, Samba. When the security patch stream runs out from the code creators there are people who will work for hire to take fixes and back-port them to versions we no longer support. We don't mind, it takes a support load off the Samba Team. Everybody wins.
All of this doesn't help Windows desktop customers, though. The lock-in means that not only does Linux have to be better than Windows, it has to be a better Windows than Windows, and run all the custom applications that customers have come to depend on over the years. This is a hard job for any operating system, especially when the target to be emulated is as deliberately baroque as the Windows application environment.
Coming at the time of an economy in recession, it looks like Microsoft might actually be scared that customers might not spend money on a Windows upgrade. There's no way to go back in time and prevent the damage to Microsoft's credibility done by the Windows Vista release; we'll just have to wait and see what the future actually holds for Windows 7. In the mean time, try and ignore the marketing thunder and check out a version of Linux. You might just find it gets you off the Windows upgrade treadmill for good!