Windows 10 won't save the PC

Fixing Windows 8's most glaring flaws is nice, but the new Windows doesn't address the fundamental PC dilemma

As soon as July, Windows 10 will finally arrive on PCs as a real, shipping product -- not a beta "technology preview" release. Microsoft is urging developers to build for it using its universal app strategy that also supports Windows Phone apps and touch-based features for Windows PCs and tablets. Microsoft also hopes Windows 10 will remove the horror that is Windows 8 from the equation, so users and companies alike start moving their PCs into the 2010s.

Don't hold your breath. I don't believe Windows 10 will help the PC in a meaningful way, past the first month or so of upgrades. The fact is Windows 10 does very little to make the PC more compelling, and it offers marginally more than Windows 7.

In the case of Windows 10, Microsoft is offering a new OS with no truly compelling capabilities.

If you have Windows 7, moving to Windows 10 does no real harm, but it provides no real benefit either. If you have Windows 8, Windows 10 is essentially your way back to Windows 7 -- because Windows 10 is Windows 7 with the face-saving integration of the Windows 8 Metro UI.

It's Windows XP users who should jump on Windows 10, assuming they haven't already switched to a Mac. (Macs are the only PCs whose sales continue to increase nearly every month for the past several years while the PC market has oscillated between flat and negative.)

For most people, Windows 10 will be simply what comes on a new PC, which you might get when your current PC is too old keep.

Windows 10 is a bare repair of Windows 8

Let me be clear: Windows 10 is a decent OS. Its problem is that it only partially repairs the damage done by Windows 8 while offering no compelling capabilities for those who wisely skipped Windows 8. That means demand will be low, both as OS upgrades and -- more critical -- for new PCs running it. Basically, if you have a decent Windows 7 PC, you're fine as is.

The biggest changes in Windows 10 are fixes for Windows 8: The Start menu is back, and the confusing Charms bar is gone, as is the separate window for one-screen Metro apps (those Metro apps now run in windows like normal Windows apps).

Windows 10 doesn't completely erase the idiocy of Windows 8. Yes, the Start menu is back, but it's soiled by being designed like a miniature version of the Windows 8 Metro Start screen. It's an inefficient, confusing, space-hogging design. Yes, it is better than the Windows 8 Start screen, but that's a very low bar.

Likewise, Windows 10's settings are still split among the old-school Control Panel and the new-school Settings app, which makes managing your PC a "where's Waldo" exercise most days. Windows 10 has altered the balance of which settings are where, but it hasn't eliminated the split.

The best new features in Windows 10 are Cortana (though the voice-based search tool spies on you, which is unsettling) and the new Project Spartan browser that finally conforms to standard HTML, as Chrome, Firefox, and Safari have long done.

I suspect Internet Explorer's road ends in Windows 10, with the dual inclusion of IE and Spartan meant to be the bridge period to finally get IT to replace or update apps that still rely on ActiveX, old Java version, and other legacy technologies that are both huge management and security risks. Getting rid of IE is a good move, but I don't see why it should be for a Windows-only browser like Spartan. In this day and age, it makes more sense to replace IE with Chrome, Firefox, or even Safari.

Another touted change is a minor and (as of the current beta) half-baked catch-up item for what OS X, Android, and iOS already do: the notifications center.

The bundled apps from Microsoft are no great shakes, mainly "lite" apps taken from Metro. If you compare them to what Apple bundles in OS X and iOS, you'll see how pathetic they are.

One way to advance the Windows platform is to advance the Windows ecosystem, especially to create federated functionality as Apple does so well. Windows 10 missed this opportunity. Perhaps Microsoft is counting on Office 365 to be that federation mechanism; if so, its cloud storage aspect need major work before it's production-ready, and Microsoft must up its productivity apps' cross-platform game.

Unneeded radical updates have trained users to stay put

When it comes to Windows, Microsoft has lurched from one major upgrade to the next ever since the first "real" version (Windows 3.1) in 1994. The company seems determined to make change for change's sake, introducing radical UI shifts in most new versions. As a result, adopting a new Windows version means retraining every user and causing many to stick with what they know works.

If you look at Apple's more rapid pace of OS X updates, you'll see a much slower rate of UI change. Each new version works essentially like the old version for core capabilities. The usage paradigm does not suddenly change, even if Apple introduces new paradigms like Handoff in OS X Yosemite, tabbed Finder windows in OS X Mavericks, code-signed apps in OS X Mountain Lion, or API-based central management in OS X Lion. 

As a result, the Mac experience is fairly smooth and well integrated from version to version. (There are times Apple has not been so smooth, of course.) By contrast, the Windows experience is a shellshock nearly every time. In the early days of personal computing, rapid change was welcome because we were all still figuring out what personal computing was. Today, we all know what PCs are for.

PCs also have new competition such as smartphones and tablets, which have caused many users to divert their time away from the PC outside of work and a few core household functions. Apple understood that in its ecosystem approach to OS X and iOS, which is one reason Mac sales grow while Windows PC sales don't: You probably will get one or two iPads before you get a new computer, but when you get a new computer, it's more likely to be a Mac due to that integration.

There's your instructive irony: OS X doesn't need radical changes to get users to adopt it. Instead, it is a largely pleasant "gift" from Apple that confirms why you like a Mac in the first place. OS X is not a driver for new Mac sales, but a benefit of buying a Mac. 

To drive new hardware sales (not only of Macs but of all its products), Apple relies instead on a "virtuous ecosystem" -- Macs, iPads, iPhones, Apple TVs, Apple Watches, and iTunes -- that work better together, so when you get new gear, it's likely to also come from Apple.

Microsoft has none of this. Because each new Windows version is either messy or uncompelling, users have no reason to adopt that new version or buy the hardware for it. That's why new Windows versions don't drive PC sales as they used to. Microsoft has no virtuous ecosystem to help drive PC sales; all it has is Windows, and that doesn't do the trick any more.

Until the dynamic changes, Windows 10 -- or any new Windows version -- won't help the PC grow again.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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