I don't understand Windows

26 June 2021

I don’t understand Windows anymore. I don’t understand what Microsoft is doing with it at all, and I’m not sure they do either. Since Windows 7, the operating system has changed in dramatic ways every few years, often rolling back changes and releasing features users vocally hate. They’ve been slowly losing the battle against Chrome OS, and even macOS and Linux, particularly in the consumer space.

I doubt Microsoft will ever truly lose their hold on the enterprise workstation market, but many companies have moved to running Linux-based operating systems for the majority of their servers thanks to the lower up front costs and generally better stability and server software support. Google’s incredible success with Chromebooks has dramatically changed the landscape for entry-level notebooks, a place where Windows was the only real option in the past, and many users in need of higher-end systems have ended up with Macs recently, in part due to the inconsistent experiences with Windows 10 and the general PC quality issues. Consumer PCs have suffered for a long time with things like preinstalled bloatware, poorly matched hardware, and things like terrible trackpads and battery life, and some users (myself included) have lost interest in a traditional PC notebook.

I’ve recently gone as far as considering moving my last main Windows PC over to Linux, as the last thing really holding me to Windows has, for a long time, been gaming. I don’t really play many games, but when I do, I want them to run well, particularly in VR. Valve has official support for the Index on Linux, and many games work well enough under Proton now, that I may permanently leave Windows behind at some point. I’ve loved my experience with Linux as a desktop OS in recent years, including running Arch Linux as my only operating system on several PCs, and my new Apple Silicon MacBook has solidified the decision to not bother with non-Apple notebooks going forward.

All of this is a bit weird though. My first real use of Windows was in the XP days, though I did use 95 and 98 for a while before that on my parents’ PCs. XP has an incredible reputation, for good reason. It was user-friendly, attractive, fast, reliable, and had great forwards and backwards compatibility. Many users continued to run XP long after its EOL, and I still keep an XP VM and an airgapped XP netbook around, mostly for nostalgic reasons.

My next computer and first laptop, a Sony VAIO VGN-NR120E (I still remember that model number off the top of my head for some reason), shipped with Windows Vista. While Vista was generally regarded as a terrible operating system, I actually loved it. It was beautiful, still the best looking software I’ve ever used. It wasn’t exactly fast, but it wasn’t generally unstable for me. My device had solid drivers, and the vast majority of the software I needed worked completely fine with no compatibility issues. The only place I really had trouble was using LAN features like file sharing with PCs still running XP, but that wasn’t something I did often. Vista seemed like a necessary step to bring Windows into a newer generation, despite its apparent issues.

Windows 7 may be loved even more than XP. While I did like 7, it honestly didn’t feel all that different from Vista for me. It was slightly uglier, with a less opinionated look and unnecessarily large UI elements for the limited display sizes of the day, but did a lot of things generally better. UAC was changed to be less intrusive by default, Start was updated with a built-in search (still the best search Windows has ever natively had), and the UI had a bit more simplicity to it, with less clutter. I never got into the combined taskbar buttons, and still use them separated with labels and a small taskbar size, all the way from Windows 7 to 10. Hopefully that’s still an option on 11, assuming I ever actually use it.

Windows 8 was a weird one. I actually really liked it overall, despite the obviously terrible UI choices. It was very fast, very stable, and brought a lot of really nice new features to the desktop experience. Sadly all of that was overshadowed by Microsoft clearly overestimating the adoption of Windows 8 tablets. The full-screen “Metro” UI was terrible, even on tablets, relying on unintuitive gestures, and the complete removal of many key UI features, including of course the infamous removal of the Start button. Microsoft quickly followed it up with Windows 8.1, which included some general improvements to the UI, and eventually the stupidly-named Windows 8.1 Update 1, which finally brought back the Start button.

Windows 10 has a Start button. People like that, so the general public considers it better than Windows 8. It has a lot of other good things to. It launched with a much-improved (though I personally still hate it) Start menu, a new feature-rich Task Manager, improvements to Explorer, Microsoft Edge (the old one that’s gone now but was generally pretty good), more window snapping options, a redesigned PC Settings that didn’t have 90% of what was in Control Panel, DirectX 12, and a bunch of other neat things.

It was supposedly “the last Windows”. With a general pattern of having two major updates per year, Ubuntu-style, Microsoft has been steadily adding features and changing things up on Windows 10 since it’s release in 2015. This has included excellent things like the Xbox Game Overlay, GPU information in Task Manager, the Windows Subsystem for Linux, new Hyper-V features, and the fantastic Chromium-based Microsoft Edge.

Sadly, both the RTM version and these periodic feature updates have also brought a lot of features no one wanted. Start search including Bing results, which are hard-coded to launch in Edge instead of the user’s default browser, large amounts of forced telemetry and online-only features, the weird news/weather widget that everyone immediately disabled upon launch in 21H1, the constant redesigns of PC Settings, none of which have been complete or stable… the list goes on.

As an aside, I find it incredibly silly that Canonical has never broken their Ubuntu release cycle, while Microsoft has screwed it up so many times now that they’ve stopped naming their releases after months and changed to a generic “20H2”-style build number. They even rolled back a release and didn’t push it out again until the next year once.

What’s weird with all of this is that none of it seems to address a lot of what Windows user most vocally request and complain about. Microsoft’s own PowerToys includes many of the things users have requested, including PowerToys Run, which is exactly what the Start search should be (and what it used to be before Windows 10), which shows just how inconsistent Microsoft’s direction internally is. My personal issues with Windows lie primarily with the aggressive use of user data, and the forced-online features that have no reason to be online (like Start search). I also find it incredibly ugly, with easily the least-consistent visual style of any operating system Microsoft has released (if you disregard the full-screen vs desktop disconnect in 8.x).

Windows 11 doesn’t seem to address any of these common issues. It is much prettier at a first glance, but time will tell if there’s any actual consistency to the redesign, or if we’ll just have yet another visual style applied to a handful of first-party applications. The centered taskbar is just weird, and honestly the whole UI feels like a shameless (and poorly-implemented) ripoff of macOS Big Sur. I don’t even like Big Sur.

There are so many incredible teams at Microsoft building such incredible things, and it’s just sad to see Windows struggle. I really hope Windows 11 is good, but the forced requirement of using a Microsoft account and using Secure Boot feel like too much lock-in for me, despite the fact that I currently use both of those things on all my Windows PCs. I love so much of what Microsoft has been doing lately and I’m going in to the next generation of Windows with some hope, but with my current opinion of Windows 10, I really don’t know if I’ll like it.

I wrote this whole thing on battery power on my MacBook Air in VS Code, while playing music and occasionally referencing some things in Safari, and I’m still at 100% battery. Apple Silicon is amazing.