My intense disdain for Microsoft Windows and its cohorts is no secret. Just because it’s the most popular (for now) computer operating system definitely does NOT make it the best, or even close to that. Between the relic that the NTFS filesystem is, the horror that is the error-prone, instability loving Registry and absolute mess that is Microsoft’s new Metro UI.
So where do we even begin? Windows powers the vast majority of personal computers, and I feel that these issues are calling its reliabilty and usability into question when alternatives such as BSD and Linux are becoming more advanced by the day.
First, Windows’ closed-source by nature architecture vastly limits its potential. Proprietary drivers and software don’t allow the end user to see how things work “under the hood”. This is to protect Microsoft’s intellectual property- and give their highly paid team of elite corporate trial lawyers something to do. Granted, the average “Joe The Plumber” isn’t going to want to do things that require permissive access to the underlying source code- but it certainly aids community developers to help build in additional functionality and access the power of newer 64 bit systems more effectively. (Linux and other UNIX-like systems have always dealt with multitasking a bit better.) Open source software not only allows more collaboration and input from the larger user and developer community- it’s also known to be vastly more secure. The majority of websites and other services on the internet, including Google, Facebook and even my own websites all run on two great pieces of open source software, Linux and WordPress. Open Source software is far more extensible, with readily available free and commercial plugins and rapid security updates in addition to a fundamentally more secure theory of operation, such as long-time support for full disk encryption, public key cryptography via solution such as OpenSSL (yes, THAT OpenSSL), and PGP encryption of emails and other files. Linux has support for many of these tools- and more baked right in to popular distributions.
Another area where Linux based operating systems outperforms Windows is scalability. Linux will scale beautifully from a small little 64 MB OpenVZ container instance, all the way on up to almost all of the supercomputers listed on the TOP500 supercomputer ranking list.
Try installing Windows 8 on your grandma’s 256MB ancient grey Dell. At the performance you’ll get on that system, Grandma won’t feel so old after all.
However, the latest version of Puppy Linux, or even LXLE will run perfectly on this rather dated system. And instead of running ancient versions of software due to hardware limitations, such as being stuck with IE8 as the latest version of Internet Explorer that will run under Windows XP, you’ll be able to run a full-featured version of Firefox, or even its lower resource using cousin Midori or Iceweasel. You will NEVER see this level of scalability on Windows, thanks in part to the monster that is the monolithic NT Kernel- a bloated relic of the past.
Another area where Windows falls short is reliability. If you’ve been using Windows based systems for any period of time, you’ll likely have made acquaintances with the fabled “Blue Screen Of Death.” With a mess of third party drivers, incoherent updates and an overall poor architecture, all versions of Windows have been proven to be extremely prone to crashes due to conflicts in software and drivers. In the spirit of fairness, Microsoft isn’t all to blame here for this- we can thank the greedy manufacturers and resellers of computers that shovel piles of crapware, trials and other unnecessary junk onto unsuspecting consumers. You’ll likely find snake oil like Norton Antivirus, trial versions of software you don’t need and other pieces of garbage littering the hard drives of newer store bought Windows PCs.
Quickly becoming one of the most-hated user interfaces on the Desktop is Microsoft’s new “Modern” UI (previously metro). The new user interface introduced from Windows 8 onward has quickly drawn the ire of veteran and new users alike. Why? It makes a desperate attempt at keeping Windows relevant in the age of the iPad and other mobile devices. It was desperately hacked together as a reaction to the iPad and other touch-based computing paradigms. It has no real innovation to stand on its own with. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada! I was one of the first people to purchase a new touch-based Windows 8 system in November of 2012. Even with a touch screen, “Live Tiles” are incredibly gimmicky on both Laptop and Desktop computers. Microsoft is having and identity crisis.
What exactly does Windows want to be when it grows up?
Does it want to be the flashy new mobile OS, to rival the currently dominant Android and iOS? They’ve already tried that, with the massive exercise in futility that was Windows Phone 7, which burned early adopters (such as myself) by denying them an upgrade path to Windows Phone 8 (partially as a result of the chincy processing guts of these devices) , and as a result killed all the early momentum they had going for what could have been a promising new mobile platform.
MSFT blew it again when they had the flop that was the Surface RT. It was such a flop that they canned the VP largely responsible for much of these new efforts, Steven Sinofsky- who himself left for greener pastures. The Surface, again, was another “me-too” product. Instead of offering real value to the marketplace and real innovation, it was another in the long Microsoft lineage of “me-too” copycat products. And the new Windows RT software cut out all backward compatibility (one of the only Windows selling points) in favor of dinkier ARM processors, from NVIDIA, no less. There are almost no popular apps from other platforms on the surface. The ones that are on the platform are often less-functional ports of their respective Android and iOS versions- it’s the red-headed step child of both mobile and desktop operating systems.
The current Windows is a Frankenstein-y mishmash of mobile, touch based paradigms and “old-school” garden variety mouse and keyboard faire. It is a jack of all trades and a master of none, producing a really third rate experience on both ways of using a Windows based computer.
By throwing its users from the griddle and into the flames with this new paradigm, Microsoft is with one fell swoop throwing over 30 years of the “Desktop Metaphor” that many computer users first became accustomed to Windows on. All of this, with no clear instructions of information to help guide users to use the new system. Not everyone is a computer expert, some people need to have their hands held, and Microsoft is not helping them here.
With craziness such as the new Windows “Charms” menu that you have to activate by moving the mouse to the top left corner of the screen, Microsoft has made Windows even less usable and less intuitive, befuddling the minds of many of its users even further.
The poorly placed charms menu has made it difficult for users to even find the hidden “shut down” button on Windows 8 systems. You would think the millions of dollars MSFT spends on usability and quality assurance would have made this a non-issue, but nope!
Don’t like the interface on your Linux system and prefer more traditional taskbars and windows? You are free to choose from hundreds of different Linux distributions, with some coming preinstalled with specialized tools and software, with much more being available for free from the developers. Many free and open source software programs such as GIMP and LibreOffice replicate and even beat many of the commercial software programs used on Windows, such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office- while not needing to be constantly rebooted and patched like Windows systems.
Sadly, most users will be unwilling to make the change to a Linux desktop despite its advantages due to ingrained habits and fears, and also the barrier of technical incompetence and illiteracy. Fortunately, Linux systems will continue to offer a clear and secure alternative to the zombie that Windows has become. Everything that requires some sense of stability and reliability relies on it (seriously, would you want missile defense systems and nuclear submarines to mess up due to a “blue screen of death”.) Sure, Linux isn’t perfect, or perfect for everyone’s needs, but in many ways it makes up for where Windows slacks off.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of my grievances with Redmond’s operating systems, however it is a good start. I will be sure to “name and shame” some of the additional technical inferiorities of these systems as soon as I manage to muster some more patience.