While I realise Microsoft could probably live without my business, Linux really does hold the floor for desktop progress over the next few years, with MS and Apple both sitting it out until late-2009/2010. In that time, there are going to be three or four major Ubuntu releases, all upping the tempo of Linux in the desktop role. MS does have the most marketshare but it has fallen into last place in terms of features, stability and performance.
On a personal note, when I’ve seen these fake Windows pictures (example right), I have to admit part of me would hop back to Vista, XP or even Win2k in a heartbeat. Linux does still have issues, and being the config-prodder that I am with the perverse hardware that I have, I run into issues and undoubtedly spend a few hours here and there hacking around. You didn’t have that choice in Windows. It either worked or didn’t and you had to accept that and just get on with things. But the vast majority of my psyche loves the freedom of Linux, loves the community spirit and the overwhelming scent of progress each time I download updates — rather than Windows’ asthmatic excuse for a restart.
So what could Windows do to regain my trust and custom?
1. Divorce the media companies — Dump DRM
DRM is always a hot topic but I’m not citing it here just because it’s fashionable. I used Vista for just under a year and know how much the whole system lags as a result of MS taking XP and wrapping its around a cattle-prod that fires when something isn’t perfect.
The argument for keeping trusted-system-DRM was to keep content providers happy, presumably to get their contracts from the big media firms at lower rates… But why should I be punished if I’m not using that media? Hell, why is every user expected to illegally copy any media they put in their computer? It doesn’t make sense. Get rid of it and we can talk.
2. Software repositories
If you’re a Windows user, you might not be familiar with the Linux way of downloading, installing and upgrading software. On many distributions, you can use one tool (graphical or command-line — your choice) to download your software from your distribution’s servers and install it automatically. Additionally, all your installed programs are checked for updates each day and if any are available, they’re downloaded and installed in the same fashion. It’s absolutely epic.
In Windows, unless it has auto-updates built into the particular software, you install something and it lingers until you go and check the website on your own. This is bad. This is how desktop users get hacked open — they’ll install something like Winamp, a few months later somebody will find an exploit for the old version and before you know it, that user’s PC is sending out spam and all sorts of other crap.
You might say that this would cost MS millions, but they could make money by allowing software vendors to sell software through their repository (a bit like Steam for applications). Centralised software distribution is too powerful a feature not to use. MS should definitely adopt it.
3. Introduce a flexible filesystem (with modules)
Admittedly this isn’t for the average user but in Linux, I enjoy a very flexible filesystem arrangement. I have disks, sftp servers and samba shares mounted all over my system, where I like. I have a directory in my home folder that is actually on my Linux server on the other side of the planet, making it oh-so-easy to upload images to the blog.
Windows has a stagnant, device-orientated filesystem that just doesn’t cut it (for me). It works but it’s a pain in the rear end when you can’t treat any filesytem like any other. It needs (nice) symbolic linking, the ability to mount a samba (that’s Windows File Share to Windows users) under your home directory as a normal folder.
Additionally, Microsoft need to add modules (and allow for third party modules) to allow reading and writing to a lot more partition types. I now have no NTFS drives. My USB and flash media are FAT32 but all my hard disks are ext2 or ext3 and there’s no way in hell that I’m going to convert everything back, again.
4. Simplify purchase and upgrades with just one desktop SKU
Windows 2000 only had a "professional" desktop varient. XP brought with it an additional "home" Stock Keeping Unit (SKU). Vista multiplied like a nasty bacterium, spawning endless variants, bringing few differences but with massive price differences. Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise and Ultimate. There’s also a super-basic version doing the rounds in the developing world.
I see the marketing rationale — "ultimate" sounds a billion and five times better than "basic" — but it’s just infuriating when you want the business edition and you also have the cheek to want the media centre functionality? Yeah, you have to buy another Vista license (in the guise of a full upgrade package) — originally 170/$350 but now just 120/$245. Bargain!
And, hey, you could also drop the price a little too. There are other revenue schemes that you could exploit in order to drive your seat cost down. Think of your users for once, Microsoft. Put everything in one package like Linux and OSX.
5. Overhaul its standard utilities
I know the job of Calculator and Notepad are basic, but that doesn’t mean that the Windows 95 version was perfect. Most of the standard "applications" that ship with Windows are dated and are rarely used in serious circumstances, rather replaced with better tools.
In Linux, the best tool is chosen for the job and if it doesn’t keep up with the competition, it’s replaced. Microsoft needs to spend less time mucking around making Texas-Hold-Em games for Ultimate users and improve the apps that everybody has to use at some point.
6. Rip out the registry
That’s why every single registry editing tip you’ll ever find starts with a big fat screaming disclaimer about how you can break your computer with regedit.
Its main purpose is to centralise settings for both Windows and all the installed applications. The problem with this: it’s idiotic. Why would you want to separate your user-files from your config files? You wouldn’t — it’s only like this because Vista, like XP, like 2000, like all the other nt versions, is still woefully dependant on the single-user designs from earlier Windows times.
Jeff also points out that the registry isn’t self-cleaning (probably a good thing) and you end up with piles and piles of crap building up. You can resort to registry cleaners but they can sometimes do damage.
The silly thing is, there is a user-space file-registry in Vista — but it’s dependant on application creators on implementing it. Microsoft should just rip out the reg, perhaps with a redirector (relocating faux entries to and from file) for legacy support.
7. Better multi-monitor support
Support for multiple monitors is there, and has been since Win2k but you can’t have more than one taskbar (ie. one for the other screens). You do, however, have the lucky opportunity to purchase UltraMon.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s an excellent piece of software but the problem it solves shouldn’t exist in the first place. It’s also not as good as a proper taskbar. This isn’t an issue in Linux.
In conclusion… Microsoft have had years to seriously innovate on the desktop. Some would argue that XP was that big step but 2000->XP was a tiny jump in functionality, security and stability compared to Win98->2000. For the sake of the Windows brand, Windows 7 needs to kick ass; otherwise it’s going to end up dying off as people find that there are already better operating systems out there.
How much of this is essential to win back my allegiance? Certainly the first four (combined) would woo me a little but if it was still let down by poor apps and the same buggy registry that’s been floating around since 1995, I’d stick with Linux.
About Oli: I’m a Django and Python programmer, occasional designer, Ubuntu member, Ask Ubuntu moderator and technical blogger. I occasionally like to rant about subjects I should probably learn more about but I usually mean well.