Alistair Fairweather

Window pains

2009-10-23 10:28

Why is it called Windows?" goes the old joke, "Because it makes you want to throw your computer out of one." So when Microsoft launched the latest version of their operating system - Windows 7 - on 22 October, many people were understandably sceptical.

After all, struggling with some version of Microsoft Windows has been a rite of passage in computing for over two decades. "How long before my new spreadsheet programme finishes installing?" we would ask. "Ten minutes! No, wait, ten seconds! Did I say seconds? I meant days! Yes, definitely, fifteen minutes. Just stare at this hourglass in the meanwhile - I'll get there eventually."

But those jokes may be finally going out of fashion. By all accounts Windows 7 isn't just good but great. Fast and efficient, it runs as smoothly on cheaper computers as it does on the latest-and-greatest machines. This is a change from Microsoft's usual style, which involved forcing you to upgrade your whole computer just to run their newest gimcrack features.

How did they accomplish this feat? Mostly they just listened. They listened to the frenzied howls of rage that accompanied the disastrous launch of their previous version of Windows, Vista, and they vowed never to let that happen again.

Then they gave out very early version of Windows 7 to their most notoriously discerning users - software developers - and actually listened to their feedback.

This is hardly revolutionary. Bill Gates himself said "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning" (which begged the reply "That explains why you are so smart - you have so many of them!")

So why did Microsoft have to re-learn this lesson? When they launched Vista in 2006 they controlled well over 90% of the operating system market. This dominance earned them the moniker "The Borg" after the fictional baddies from the Star Trek series that "assimilate" whole races into their armada. It's hard to stay hungry for success when you have it already.

So now they've got back to what they're really good at, which is copying features from Apple. Remember, Windows was originally a rip off of Apple's first graphical operating system, way back in the early 1980s. True to form Windows 7 has all kinds of touches that remind people of Mac'S much loved OSX system.

Perhaps that's why Apple has rushed to skewer Windows 7 with a new batch of sarcastic "Mac vs Pc" adverts - they want revenge. It's easy to poke fun at the Borg - they're big and mean and slow and stupid, right?

But for once Apple come off looking like the chumps here. The latest release of their own operating system, Snow Leopard, has been dubbed "the Vista of Mac" by industry wags. Bashing what looks to be the best product Microsoft have released in years just makes Apple look petulant.

And, regardless of the frustration they may have caused, Microsoft essentially gave birth to the modern software industry. By creating a standard platform, they drove global innovation, allowing software developers to concentrate on features instead of supporting dozens of operating systems. (And yes, it earned them a few tens of billions of dollars too).

Yet even if Windows 7 exceeds Microsoft's wildest expectations, their greatest glories will remain in the past. Sure they own 94% of the market, but what happens when that market itself becomes irrelevant?

In another 10 years most people will not pay for their operating systems, not when companies like Google are giving them away for free. Microsoft may finally have learned how to make a decent operating system, but it may prove to be two decades too late.

- Alistair is Social Media Manager at 20FourLabs.

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