-- Robin Hood
People who know me and talk with me, know I've been making this claim for years. That means that this post has been years in the making. That is true both in terms of the argument I'm about to make and in the actions Microsoft has taken to create the situation. The reality is that if I had made this argument ten years ago, most people would've laughed and stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.
But you're still here, aren't you? Of course you are. You don't know why but chances are that if you've been paying attention at all to tech in general, you suspect that what I'm saying is true despite the fact that you may not understand specifics as to why. 20 years ago people would've died laughing when faced with this claim. Ten years ago it would've resonated with the handful of people who realized just how much the tech landscape was beginning to change. Today? I'd argue most remaining Windows users would at least be willing to acknowledge that this could very possibly be the case and a lot would even be willing to overtly agree with it.
So what happened? How did Windows go from dominating nearly every facet of computing and being a fact of daily tech life to becoming something that people only use when they absolutely have to? Well there are a number of factors here but the two primary ones are that the operating system market was disrupted by touch computing, courtesy of Apple and iOS and Microsoft's subsequent attempts to address that disruption.
Whatever else I might say about iOS and iPhones I've got to give Apple credit: They upended the world of Operating Systems by proving to people that you didn't need Windows and that there was still room for innovation in the world of user interfaces. These two things rocked Windows hard. It took a few years for it to catch on, primarily because iPhones were expensive, limited to a single phone carrier in the US and because the iOS ecosystem was initially non-existent due to a lack of support for third party apps. Once Apple resolved that, it was effectively all over for traditional Windows but the crying.
Now because of the ramp up time and the fact that Microsoft management was still getting high on the world's largest stockpile of hubris, they failed to recognize this for what it was. There is no need for me to detail any of this because there are a million other articles that will more than happily relay those sordid details to you. Nevertheless Microsoft acted like nothing had changed all the way through the release of Windows 7 because as far as they were concerned, nothing had changed. It wasn't until after the release of Windows 7 in July of 2009 when Microsoft began to realize this was not true.
So Microsoft responded. First with the release of Windows Phone 7 in November of 2010 and then with the release of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 in October of 2012. The initial release of Windows Phone 7 was met with tepid and in some cases great optimism as it was the first sign out of Redmond that they understood what was actually happening in the tech landscape. Windows 8 was supposed to cement their new approach. The only problem is that virtually everybody who wasn't a card carrying Microsoft fan hated it for some reason or another.
Windows 8 in my mind marked a point of transition for Microsoft, but not the one they were aiming for. It marked the moment that the Windows team became more concerned about solving their own problems rather than the problems of their users. There was virtually nothing in Windows 8 that made the upgrade worth it beyond a few technical changes such as faster boot up times. Most of it's new fangled features such as support for touch, Metro/Modern apps and the app store were absolute garbage. In fact, even the current incarnations of these features in Windows 10 are garbage. Virtually nothing has improved on any of these fronts.
Windows 8.1 hit in October of 2013 and Microsoft addressed some of the overwhelming criticism Windows 8 had received. It was a largely considered a good release because it showed that Microsoft was still listening to its users. But the real problem here is that Microsoft wasn't rewarded for this. At least not in the way that they wished to be. While the negative press on Windows 8.x eased up somewhat with the release of 8.1, PC sales were still falling and all of Microsoft's new initiatives were failing to resonate with users. In short: Nobody cared about their app store or about their new fangled app platform.
This brings us to the release of Windows 10 in July of 2015. This is the moment that fully marked Windows transition to that of a legacy OS. While Windows 10 made a cynical attempt to address some of the remaining criticism from the Windows 8.x it also embraced a new far more cynical approach to dealing with the user base: Make the upgrade "free" and offsetting that by monetizing the living shit out of them by harvesting their data while force feeding questionable updates down their throats. In addition they force existing Windows 7 and 8.x users to upgrade by attempting to force and trick them into installing it. When that failed to work as well as they liked, Microsoft took the extraordinary step of backporting parts of the data harvesting infrastructure from 10 to 7 and 8.1 in an effort to monetize those users as well.
That trend continues to this day. In addition Windows 10 releases have been steadily declining in terms of quality. In addition, Windows 10s new app platform, UWP, is officially a miserable failure as Microsoft's own Office team has now abandoned it. This relegates it to the dust heap of history just like the Metro/Modern platform before it. This effectively means that the only reason users have to choose Windows have been narrowed down to three: Laziness, Ignorance and Backwards Compatibility. As far as I can tell, the majority of users fall into the last group.
A side effect of Windows enterprise and consumer dominance for over 15 years is that people wrote a metric ton of apps for it. There are endless swathes of custom enterprise apps along with an army of video games. In fact, most modern game dev shops still target Windows as a premier platform, for better or worse. All of this compatibility is effectively the only thing keeping Windows around as a viable operating system.
My prediction is that we will continue to see Windows' influence to diminish as mobile and web apps continue to dominate the modern app space. At this point, it seems clear that Microsoft is both unwilling and incapable of doing anything about it. This personally makes me sad because other parts of Microsoft have shown a willingness to evolve their approach to accommodate for this new world in which users actually have a choice. For instance, the development side has fully embraced FOSS development with the development and release of products like .NET Core and Visual Studio Code. Even the old stodgy Office team has decided to get their shit together by porting Office apps to the iOS and Android platforms. Add to this the fact that Microsoft's own cloud services arm, Azure, recently revealed that Linux was the most popular operating system run on their platform.
Additionally it is worth noting that Windows is beset on all sides by competitive pressures that didn't exist ten years ago. ChromeOS is beginning to dominate in US schools. This means US kids aren't getting exposed to Windows anymore. In addition Windows 10 has yet to dethrone even Windows 7 despite the fact that 15 months from now Windows 7 will no longer receive any updates. Oh and lets not forget Android. One of these days I'll sit down and write a post explaining another one of my favorite sayings: "Android is the new Windows".
Surprised? You shouldn't be. Perhaps the Windows team was. But at this point that's really not too shocking when you consider that for over ten years they have been consistently missing the boat as well as the point. What is the point? Software is about empowering your users. Everything else is secondary to that. The Microsoft Windows team's inability to grasp that has relegated Windows to legacy operating system status.