Windows 8 signifies the return of Microsoft to a very monopolistic way of thinking. This has always been present in Microsoft’s actions and they’ve paid the price for it more than once. But the past had always been marked with concessions to the concept that other options – or at least non-Microsoft designed and approved workflows – existed. As I’ve started to put the pieces together I no longer feel this is the case…and it really bothers me.
Let’s start with the basics; Windows 8 is a fantastic UI with a lot to offer a user who is using a single device; a typical setup for a home user circa 2000. It is also functional across multiple devices in a very Microsoft proscribed way such as roaming profiles which takes your user settings from system to system where the installed application base is identical; a typical setup in very large enterprises.
Microsoft – and its most ardent apologists – are quick to explain that the “average” user doesn’t use more than a handful of applications. Imposing a few extra clicks isn’t viewed as a bad thing for infrequently accessed items. Besides, Microsoft wants us all to use the search to find applications. A quick keyboard shortcut and type the name of the program and bam! You’re there! Again, these people are entirely correct. This is how most people used to use their computers and how many still do; perhaps this is even still the majority usage pattern.
Underlying this entire conversation are assumptions regarding how people use devices. Microsoft have gone to great pains to discover how people used to use their devices. Microsoft also have some very specific ideas in mind about how we should use our devices. Both of these are – at least for some of us – orthogonal to how we actually want to use our devices.
The new normal is anything but
The fundamental presumption of Microsoft’s approach to computing is that a device “belongs” to an individual. At worst, a family may share a PC in a home setting; here, each user might customize their experience via their own unique profile on the PC. The old, information-dense UIs of the past aren’t required in Microsoft’s vision of the future because individuals will “own” their devices. They will know how these devices work, what’s installed on them and their individual quirks.
If you want to take your user experience with you, you can…by physically picking up a Windows device (preferably a Microsoft Surface) and taking it with you. Your “user experience” – your individual customizations to the Windows operating system, the ribbon bars, individual applications and so forth – travel with you.
For home users, this is your only option. The default configuration as provided by Microsoft for new users is functionally unusable; most people will take the time to fairly heavily customize the OS. This means that with our new highly customizable environments we cannot simply saunter over to someone else’s computer and start using it; not without a great deal of frustration. Nothing is in the right place; the buttons you need to get work done aren’t there.
Lacking an information dense tool like the start menu makes knowing what’s installed and available to use on a given computer just that frustrating bit more difficult. I own and use enough computers – physical and virtual – that I have absolutely no idea which system has what on it. Not only is this a problem for my personal fleet, but every SMB I manage has the same problem.
For a company with limited means, you can’t just go around installing Adobe’s creative suite on every computer because a handful of people require it. Ditto Visio or Microsoft Office. Lots of companies have alternative applications deployed to systems typically handled by those who only need to view a document or make minor changes. The average office worker doesn’t care that they are using Libre Office instead of Microsoft Office, but the accountant will scream bloody murder if they don’t have the right version of Excel.
In a large enterprise, you get around this issue by throwing money at it. “Make everything the same” is an acceptable solution, even if you essentially piss away millions on unnecessary licensing. You don’t get that choice at most SMBs; so you need a quick and simple method to check if what you need exists. That used to be the Start Menu. The Start Screen and/or search are poor replacements, especially when companies have large numbers of installed applications, or differing versions where the individual applications’ names have changed ever so slightly.
Take it with you
Microsoft isn’t stupid. They thought about the above and tried to come up with solutions that still fit their paradigm of use cases. Microsoft offer both Windows Sync and Windows To Go as solutions to the above problems. Both are their own problems.
Windows Sync is a half-assed solution that doesn’t help anyone but Microsoft. You can’t use your user as a template from which to craft another. It doesn’t migrate installed applications, and only migrates Windows Store app settings. Windows Store Apps are almost universally crap, so what good does that do end users? The things we most desperately need (such as Classic Shell or Ribbon customizations for Office) don’t come with. Additionally, citizens and businesses located outside the United States may have some legitimate concerns regarding storing all their information in Microsoft’s cloud.
Windows 8 To Go would seem to be an acceptable compromise. Stick your copy of Windows 8 in an encrypted container on a flash drive and boot from it on any compatible PC. This could be awesome; except for the part where it is enterprise-only. It still doesn’t address that pesky tech support issue but would solve the discovery and utilization of the right set of installed applications…if only those who needed it could afford to – or were even allowed to – buy it.
So we’ve come round to VDI at last. The only real solution to taking your environment with you wherever you go across devices is not to do so. Keep a nicely configured and curated environment in a central location and remotely access it. This doesn’t solve the tech support problem, but it does – for many if not most – solve the discoverability and utilization of applications. There is, of course, a hitch.
Microsoft’s licensing surrounding VDI is draconian. The long and the short of it is that they do not want you to actually use it; certainly not as an individual user or SMB. Enterprises are allowed to, but only if they pay through the nose and keep an eye on every single device that is used to access the central desktop.
Microsoft doesn’t think about VDI in a particularly common-sense way. You or I might think to buy a license for Windows, Office and all my software and then install it on all on one central PC or VM. We would then access that PC from anywhere in the world on any device. That isn’t allowed.
You see Microsoft believes that every device you access that central desktop from should be licensed for Windows, Office and what-have you. We see centralized desktop provisioning as a way to overcome the technical limitations of the software to more efficiently get things done. Microsoft sees every access to that centralized desktop as a lost sale.
In Microsoft’s world you will pay to have a copy of each software application you use on every device you use it from. That device could be a dumb terminal, an iPhone, a hotel PC, you name it. If you want to take your environment and applications with you then you need to physically pick up the device and bring it. Anything else is piracy.
Microsoft has created new licensing solutions for those of us who want to use our environments remotely. For someone like me who might access his centralized desktop from over 300 devices over the course of a year they would mean personal bankruptcy. (This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I will keep using my Windows XP VM until an RDP-class remote desktop protocol is developed for Linux.)
So what is the solution here? Ultimately, will we be able to find some middle ground? We will simply accept a limitation of the possible or will we rise up, demand Microsoft rescind the restrictions? If we do; would Microsoft listen? Will Microsoft make the move to change before we get all uppity, or will they stay the course of their vision no matter what?
I can’t say I know what the future holds; I can say I hope it holds something different than the offerings on the table today. I feel the offerings today are holding back innovation and gutting competition. They are sowing the seeds of discord and that isn’t good. It won’t work out for Microsoft nor those who depend on their products. The last thing we need is another yet war between one of Big Tech’s giants and its own customers.