Sunday, 28 February 2016

European Union: the Microsoft way of doing things

The Microsoft "progress" bar

As a software developer I am increasingly irritated by the dumbing down of interfaces. There's nothing wrong with giving things a facelift, but you still need things to be where they have always been in order to keep up the same level of productivity. In this I quite liked Windows 7. There wasn't much wrong with it.

But that wasn't good enough for Microsoft. It had to poke around and make a one-size-fits-all operating system that functioned on all devices. Windows 10. For me that now means I can't find anything, it's slower, has no added value and is a lot more prone to crashing. 

More to the point, I never had any choice in upgrading. I didn't want it and never asked for it. The constant interruptions of updates from the centre and the nagging pop-ups disrupt productivity.

Some would argue that Windows 10 was a complete reinvention for the modern world, and while the user doesn't appreciate the change in architecture, it has been made so that it is better prepared for the future. So much goes on in computing that the user does not see and can never appreciate why certain changes are necessary. That's as maybe but all of this has been done without reference to the customer.

Moreover, it's not just the operating system. It intrudes on every day tools. I'm a huge fan of Microsoft Office, and superusers will know of some hidden extras that make all the difference to productivity. What we find in later editions is these tools have been deprecated, utterly shafting users (loyal customers) in the process, requiring that systems be redeveloped at great expense to do the same thing only less well. And if you don't like it, who do you complain to who's going to respond? Nobody. 

At the micro level it makes me reconsider if Microsoft is still the way forward. And in this there is an inherent hypocrisy in that the high end developer tools have barely changed. The coding environment looks more or less the same as ever it did. The plebs users must have their productivity messed with, but not the people in charge.

Now I find, having had a prolonged break from front-line developing, I find I am largely unfamiliar with what I have always been used to and I am now faced with a choice. I can either put in the extra hard work to persist with something that I don't like, or I can move beyond Microsoft and look at other solutions that bring down costs, enhance my capabilities and prospects. I have a big task ahead of me, so why not reconsider my whole approach.

In this, there are several options on the table. There are some who would rather deny any progress and revert to Windows 95, pulling the internet cable out and watch VHS tapes instead, then there are those who think with a bit of pressure, Microsoft might restore Windows to how it looked in 2011. The former is pointless and would not work, the latter may mean some cosmetic changes but the essence of what it is and how it works does not change. Neither really works for me.  

What I want is something different that responds to voters users that basically does the same thing, but one that largely leaves me alone, offers me a choice if I want certain upgrades, allows for better connectivity without having being locked into using the same ISP, and something that lets my computer talk directly to other computers without everything having to go through a central computer that has the authority to deny my transactions. I want to keep all the modern functionality but I want control over how it looks and feels, I want the freedom to climb in and fix things myself if they don't work and I want it to be less intrusive. 

In this, in the modern age, we find that the operating system is becoming increasingly irrelevant anyway. We no longer have to buy and install applications in that websites are becoming ever more sophisticated. Let's call them Windows Tailored Operations (WTO). 

A lot of the native tools that come as standard with the operating system are simply not required and rather than hunting around for the menu shortcut, I can just go to a URL where I know I have almost instant access to free tools that work just as well. More to the point, I can access them anywhere in the world without having to take my own computer with me. It's more agile. I can do the same task from any machine so long as it has a browser.

What we then find is that the browser becomes more important than the operating system, and eventually we come full circle where all we need is a dumb terminal whose performance is entirely dependent on how good the connection to the outside world is. In this I don't care about the cosmetic changes, and I am more interested in the service providers where I can look the world over for services that enhance my productivity.

Now I realise I have beaten this particular dead horse into a puddle of glue but the metaphor doesn't need expanding does it? We're at a crossroads where we need to decide if we are going to hide from the march of progress and persist with something that is becoming increasingly an irritation, or are we going to let go of what we have been used to and design something more liberating that's more in tune with the world as it is rather than how we wish it was?

Nobody really wants to go through the process of backing up personal data, wiping the machine and starting over, but that's ok, because there are ways to do it without all that pain these days - but in the end, you know what happens if you don't do it. The registry gets clogged up, licences run out out, programmes stop working and you're much more susceptible to viruses that gradually erode your productivity, privacy and agility.

Everything becomes a painful chore while everybody else is moving light-years ahead using systems built on a wholly different architecture. We can admit these tools served us well in the 90's and helped us get where we are, but that should not stop us parting company with obsolete ideas. 

In this we see Microsoft doing whatever it can to lock you into doing things their way, making it ever more difficult to break away, but there comes a time where the recurrent costs just outweigh the benefits and it just doesn't compete with similar that does just almost as much for a fraction of the cost. 

In the end you just have to be ruthless and say enough is enough. It's a major personal decision but it's also a business decision. It will take some work to make it happen. It will require some adjustment and some personal investment, and maybe even some up-front costs, but on the other side of the mountain, you're more engaged, better connected, less distracted, more capable and ultimately happier. Let's not be luddites about it. Let's stop living in the past, let's stop living in denial and do what needs to be done. 

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