Going back to the walled garden will not be a good move for the next Windows iteration.
There’s been a lot of crowing about Microsoft’s new laptop, but in all honesty, I’m not sure why. Fabric and Surface Pen aside, it’s no more impressive than any other premium Ultrabook, with HP, Dell and Razer producing better models for the same price or less over the last year. Hell, there isn’t even a USB3-C port on the device, and it's still determined to use Mini DisplayPort over the HDMI standard, which infuriates almost everyone who doesn’t want to carry adapters with them.
Most of the Microsoft-lauding over the last few years (much of it deserved) is due to an enormous vacuum left by Apple’s dismal showing in the PC hardware and software space. Overpriced and underpowered laptops with silly gimmicks don’t attract power users willing to pay high amounts for build quality, nor does software that refuses to improve at the same pace as the mobile alternatives. Microsoft’s dramatic push towards Windows as a service is a smart move and up until now, I’ve seen little legitimate reasoning as to why Windows 10 should not be seen as the best desktop operating system available.
That all changes with Windows 10 S. S is Microsoft’s first attempt to build a truly locked and controlled gateway, ala MacOS with default security settings. Edge is the default browser. Bing is your search engine. Office is your productivity and OneDrive is your cloud storage. It’s the first post-Balmer, post-iPhone “Pure Microsoft” experience. It’s Microsoft telling Apple and Google that it can also compete for that lucrative “safe space” market that schools and large enterprises are buying Chromebooks and iPad Pros for.
But with this pure experience comes another first – S machines are now locked to the Windows Store, a tepid, garbage fire of awful Windows Phone apps, hastily ported Facebook games and obsolete Windows 8.1 experiments by developers excited at the idea of a “fresh”, uncluttered arena with a huge install base. Most Windows users have probably clicked on it once and immediately closed it – mainly since it’s got nothing useful on it and pricing tends to be enormously hit and miss.
It’s a bit ironic, really. Years of allowing anyone to make anything has created a staggering array of Windows applications, but that freedom has also spawned other marketplaces on which to offer that software. Steam, arguably the largest single software store on the platform, showed publishers and developers that feeding games to users directly was simple and profitable. So, they all went and did it – now if you want to play anything, there are about four or five applications you need (Steam, Origin, Blizzard, Bethesda, Epic, uPlay, Gog Galaxy, etc) - none of which are available on the Windows Store.
But with this pure experience comes another first – S machines are now locked to the Windows Store, a tepid, garbage fire of awful Windows Phone apps...
This goes for almost everything – productivity apps like Adobe Creative Suite and AutoCad have mobile versions on the Windows Store, but they aren’t anywhere as full-featured nor do they allow cross-platform compatibility. Games are mostly resigned to Xbox exclusives and the odd secondary publisher. If you’re running the full version of Windows, some of these are genuinely useful purchases – you can’t buy Halo Wars 2 or Quantum Break anywhere else – but the rest of the apps you can.
There are memories of Windows RT here – that disastrous mess similarly cut down Windows to a mere shadow of itself, mainly to fit compatibility with the ARM (mobile) processor that was in the Surface RT. S does not have to suffer from these limitations – the Laptop uses traditional intel processors and is compatible with a traditional X64 operating system. In fact, you can upgrade or reinstall Windows 10 Pro on the device if you have a key, or you can upgrade for $50 (it’s free between now and the end of the year).
S feels like a bait and switch in its current form. The Windows Surface Laptop is not a budget device – the cheapest one is $1500 – and most users will simply be confused with the “S” moniker or consider it to be just another slight moderation of the traditional Windows 10 interface. People buying a premium laptop should be allowed the full experience they are buying, rather than Microsoft using them as guinea pigs to see how much of the user base is happy to mush their daily use into the software that exists already.
I can see the idea here – more computing is browser-based than it was in 2012, thanks to HTML5 and other improved standards – and that many users do little more than open a browser or MS Office on most occasions. But this methodology also assumes that the customer has access to a well-stocked app store if they do want to do something other than watch Netflix or check their email. It also locks out access to long-standing competition and those integral, little applications you need on a regular basis.
Microsoft has made it easier for developers to package apps easily – Windows 10 now supports Centennial, a tool which makes it easy to wrap a “Universal App” box around traditional applications to put them on the store. Even with this tool, however, most app developers don’t feel a need to create two Windows versions of their apps since they can sell them to 95% of their users in their original form. Packaging these apps is serving a tiny market that isn’t asking for them.
Windows 10 is special because it is one of the few traditionally powerful operating systems left. Its power stems from the freedom it provides to its users, while dramatically increasing security and utility over time to protect those users from themselves. Windows 10 S is a naked attempt to force users into the Store, and to provide its developers with an incentive to populate it. Microsoft has always lamented the fact that Google and Apple turn over billions from their stores without little effort – now it’s Microsoft's turn.