Windows on the world

Microsoft Windows celebrates its 20th birthday this week. I’d post something really acerbic, but I’m sitting at a Windows 2000 workstation; my laptop at home (on which 90% of the Elgg code was written) runs Windows XP. I have a desktop that dual boots Windows 2000 and Mandrake Linux, but I’m going to be honest: I haven’t booted the Linux side of it in over a year.

So why Windows?

There are two main competitors as I see it: Linux and Mac OS, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Both are now *nix operating systems, which I view as an important strength; they have a power, extensibility and stability that Windows can only dream of. But in their own way they’ve both been scuppered by their user base and parent organisations.

Linux has come along in leaps and bounds over the past few years, but I still don’t think it’s really ready as a desktop system. Certainly, I could use it if I wanted to; I know quite a few people who do. But the average user isn’t going to want to brave the command prompts and tarballs that characterise the Linux experience; I don’t really want to mess with cron jobs et al outside of administering a web server, so I stay clear of it too. I just want something that switches on and works. Sure, it’s full of security holes and I have to run Windows Update on a regular basis if I don’t want my computer to be hacked to pieces just for being on the Internet, but it runs applications with simple user interfaces that don’t require me to think about how the computer actually works. Linux applications are getting better – Open Office rivals Microsoft Office, even if it’s not quite as swift just yet – but there’s still that lingering sense that the end user experience is coming second to the system administrator experience.

Mac OS has a gorgeous interface, meanwhile, but was scuppered by Apple’s decision to not let anyone else use it. Only one company makes the Apple Mac, which has led to a traditional price premium. These days they’re lowering the prices and introducing budget machines like the Mac Mini (which isn’t quite so budget once you buy things like monitors, mice and keyboards, not included in the box), but the stereotype is still that Macs are for slightly richer people who are as concerned about how their machine looks as how it works. That’s great for a luxury item, but you’re never going to get a computer on every desk in every home with that attitude.

All that said, I want Microsoft to fail. Badly. Their software crashes, it’s slow, their monopoly has allowed for notable lapses in functionality (see Internet Explorer). As soon as someone else comes up with an OS user interface that works on peoples’ existing computers, is easy to use whether you’re a digital illiterate or a computer scientist, handles standard file types seamlessly and doesn’t cost the earth, they’re toast. Businesses aren’t keen to upgrade to Vista – a lot of people are still on 2000 – and something that you didn’t have to re-buy every three years would really appeal to a lot of people. It would be very nice if that could happen sometime over the next ten years, and nicer still if the open source movement could manage it. I’m not utterly convinced that they can – we’re largely a bunch of computer programmers, and the movement needs far more designers – but I hold out some hope.

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