You know, it really surprises me sometimes how little reporters that cover technology actually know about technology. Case in point is an article in this Sunday’s New York Times that claims that Windows should undergo that same under-the-covers change that OS X went through a number of years ago.
There are a number of problems with this article. The first is the list of Windows versions that are delineated in the fourth paragraph. He says that there have been 12 versions of Windows, and later says that the Windows “7”codename doesn’t mean anything. Well, since Windows Vista is Version 6 of the kernel, then Windows “7” means that it’s the seventh major release of the Windows Kernel. Duh. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, it’s right there in the computer properties.
Then, he goes on to compare the state of Windows now to the state of Mac OS9 a number of years ago, and seems to think that the lions share of the 1 billion computers that are out there should be forced to go through a major overhaul like Mac had to. He says that:
When I.T. professionals and consumers got a look at Vista, they all had this same question for Microsoft: That’s it?
That is the type of skin-deep assessment that only people who think form is more important than function. People who take the “beauty is skin deep” approach with Vista miss features like Web Services for Devices, ASLR, the WPF-based printing subsystem, ReadyBoost, and the many security-related changes Microsoft has made with Vista… among many other things.
Here is the problem with that reasoning. Windows just went through a major overhaul in how things work under the covers. It’s called Windows Vista. What is the number one problem people complain about with Windows Vista? COMPATIBILITY. Windows customers DON’T WANT their stuff to stop working, something that Microsoft was made all too aware of.
The reason Mac could afford to undergo a major rewrite in 2001 is because at that time, Apple had just 3.1% marketshare (which represented a DROP from 4.6% the previous year). According to this site, that amounts to about 19.4M computers… which isn’t bad, until you take into account the fact that it took 17 years to get there. That’s 1.1M a year, for those of you keeping track.
Guess how many of those systems were “mission critical” systems in Fortune 500 companies at that time. Fortune 1000 companies? Fortune 5000 companies? The correct answer is ZERO: not a single business in the Fortune 5000 at that time ran Macs as their primary computer system. So Apple could afford to tell those users to run their existing applications in a legacy emulated environment, because few people of importance were actually using them. (And BTW, for those of you still keeping track OS X was not the 10th release of the same kernel, it was the first release of a new one. So the recent OS X 10.5 “Leopard” release is really “OS X 1.5”.)
Randall Stross, the article’s author, claims to be a Professor of Business at San Jose State University. So he ought to know that a business would not invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on IT infrastructure and custom software development if they thought those investments would in any way be invalidated further down the line. So while Mr. Stross advocates the kind of “screw the customers” approach Apple took 6 years ago, to which critics said the OS was “not ready for mainstream adoption,” Microsoft (who has more experience with releasing stable software) understands that compatibility is critical, and would rather research new ways to maintain compatibility while keeping the codebase secure, instead of giving their users the finger.
I agree with Ed Bott that Microsoft’s biggest mistake was to make Windows XP SP2 a free upgrade. It should have been Windows XP R2 instead. Their second biggest mistake with Vista was not making a more radical change to the UI, to appease the “beauty is skin deep” types. (I know about the “businesses would need to retrain” argument against that, but the new Out-of-Box-Experience Wizard could have had the option to choose Windows Aero, or something sexier.) Their third mistake was not making people sit through a 3 minute video on why UAC is a good thing, before letting them do anything else on their computer, a la Windows ME.
But anyway, I believe that Mr. Stross has allowed his prejudices to cloud his search for the real facts. He uses Singularity as the impetus for his overall argument (hardly a novel strategy, as others with similarly nonexistent experience with this research OS have also taken this tack) without ever actually using the OS that he suggests should replace Windows on the at least 800M PCs it is currently running on. Singularity is designed to help people re-think application isolation for robust security, not for getting your 9-year-old printer to work.
So I guess the real question is this: Mr. Stross, what operating system did you write that article on, a PC or a Mac? And what was that old saying about “those who can’t do?” I forget. Anyway, I think Windows needs some fresh air as much as the next guy. But throwing out the baby with the bath water is NOT the way to do it.
And even my arch-nemesis Paul Thurrott agrees with me.