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So This is What Microsoft Calls Simple?

I wonder how often Microsoft has actually done anything original. Sure, I suppose you can find instances where they have done successful adaptations of intriguing technology, or have bought a company to acquire needed intellectual property. But when they do their own in-house variations on a theme in response to someone else’s innovations, they can come up with pathetic results.

Consider Windows 8. The concept of presenting icons as tiles was tried on the Zune music player, and it failed. It was tried yet again with Windows Phone 7, and it still failed, although Microsoft is hoping the newest version of their smartphone software, combined with the manufacturing muscle of Nokia, will yield success. Oh, and Microsoft hopes to have Siri-like personal assistant functionality too some time next year that, with a better marketing message, will help boost sales. But don’t bet on it!

So consider the initial Windows 8 announcement, coming on the heels of news that Apple’s OS X Lion would incorporate some features borrowed from the iOS. In response, Microsoft decreed that both desktop and mobile versions must inherit the same overlay or user interface theme. That, I suppose, was meant to do one better than Apple, although I still have qualms about the whole thing after playing with the first Windows 8 public beta version.

Naturally, you had to wonder just how Microsoft will distribute Windows 8 after Apple made Lion a mostly downloadable product. I said “mostly,” because there is a USB stick version, if you’re willing to pay a $40 premium for it.

But Apple’s online distribution scheme is simplicity itself, maybe too simple. If you’re running OS X Snow Leopard and want to switch to Lion, you just have to go to the Mac App Store and buy a copy. Within seconds, it’ll begin to download to your Mac. Once the download is done, you launch the installer and let it do its thing. After the restart, you’re ready to roll. You don’t have to serialize your copy, or have it pass an online verification. It just works, and at $29.99, the price can’t be beat.

The advantages of this system are undeniable. For consumers, all the Macs in your home can get that update without buying family packs. Small businesses should be able to get away with a similar scenario, although larger companies will want to use Apple’s business ordering and licensing system.

I’m not unaware of the downsides, for those running older Mac OS X versions, but are otherwise compatible with Lion. Not having a broadband pipe in your home or office is also a problem, but you can always go to a Wi-Fi hotspot, or an Apple Store to retrieve your copy of Lion.

Now you had to expect that Microsoft would want to consider a similar scheme for Windows but, typical of their usual behavior, they can’t figure out how to make it simple. In one of those lame press releases for which Microsoft is famous, they treat the decision to offer an online installation of Windows 8 as something special, rather than just following a trend, recognizing, in the words of Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Business Division, that “buying boxed software is quickly becoming the exception rather than the rule, with more and more software being purchased online as broadband penetration increases and large-size media downloads become more common.” Notice they don’t mention Apple, but that’s nothing unusual.

However, Microsoft will still continue to offer boxed versions, not with USB sticks, but with traditional DVDs. Microsoft just cannot move forward without lugging all that extra baggage.

The Windows 8 download, according to Sinofsky, will supposedly allow the customer to “pre-key” the installer, which, I suppose, means that your installer will already be serialized ahead of the download. The installation will therefore still be restricted to a single PC. How that makes it easier escapes me, since it still involves some sort of serialization scheme. The setup process will also involve using the online installer to scan a PC for compatibility ahead of the download. This is also Microsoft’s vision of simplicity.

Of course, with a Windows PC, the climate is far more complicated than on a Mac. It’s quite possible the user will be running loads of software and drivers that won’t be compatible with Windows 8, and it makes sense that the installation process alert users to the dangers. On the other hand, if the customer has already paid for an online download, does that mean they’ll get their money back if the installation is somehow deemed incompatible?

The other issue is the cost. Microsoft derives a hefty portion of their revenue from Windows licenses. They simply cannot afford to deliver a $29.99 product and expect a decent return. Sure, OEMs, PC makers who preload Windows on their computers, won’t pay much more than that for a basic license. But they are buying them by the millions. Microsoft is notorious for extorting loads of cash from individual customers for Windows upgrades, not to mention offering a confusing set of product alternatives. So there’s an “Ultimate” version with all the features, plus cheaper versions where selected sets of features are removed in exchange for a lower price. That’s also an impediment to simplicity. You have to expect that Windows 8 will be marketed in the same fashion.

Well, at least you can hope that the downloadable version will cost less. It would also be intriguing to see if Microsoft takes the hint and offers just one version for all, with perhaps a family pack for home users and a comparable deal for small businesses. But, as I said, the concept of simple continues to elude Microsoft.