Thursday, 17 October 2013

Windows 8.1: Candy and a Currant Bun

And so it came to pass that on the day Morrissey's autobiography was released, Microsoft chose to update Windows 8. The company has added a couple of arrows and a button that doesn't do much and point one. Windows 8 was a shock when it was new, and some people thought it should be bludgeoned in its bed, but I've grown to mostly forget about it. Has it changed, or have I changed?

I'm looking forward to the next edition, Windows 8.11, which will add support for Workgroups. What are Workgroups? Well, Workgroups are a kind of peer-to-peer network along the lines of Apple's AppleTalk. Imagine this scenario - you've got a room full of PCs, and a very expensive laser printer in the corner, and you want to send something to it for printing. Ordinarily you'd save your work to a floppy disc and transfer it to the machine connected to the laser printer, but what if you could hook all the PCs to the laser printer with a cable, wouldn't that be great? You wouldn't have to walk across the room any more. You could be in another room. You could print out a sheet of paper that says YOU ARE A POOPY-HEAD and no-one would know it was you.

Tomorrow morning we'll be miles away / on another continent and another day

In theory you could buy a room full of Macs instead, but they're expensive. And different. Now imagine that instead of being connected to a laser printer, your Workgroup is connected to the telephone line - and on the other side of the world there is a room much like your own, and your Workgroup is connected to that Workgroup, and you can share files and things with people on the other side of the world. Which is Australia. Right now, the cost of international telecommunication is too expensive for this to be a reality, and of course there are political barriers, but one day all of humankind will be one race, one creed, and information will be free. In the far future we won't need to transmit things to the other side of the world any more, because they will already know everything we know, but until that comes to pass, information will be clumped, and unevenly spread.

The future of humankind will not be a boot stamping on a person's face forever, because all complex systems fall apart, and the world of 1984 was a very complex system. Good and evil both require energy to keep going, and the more extreme the regime the more energy is required, until the energy that might have gone into advancing the regime is instead wasted on perpetuating it. Tyranny and utopia are doomed to fail, in the long run; the future of humanity is a kind of middling averageness, which is at least preferable to a nightmare of torture and brutality.

And if life cannot be a dream, at least we might get a good night's sleep. But that is enough of Morrissey's autobiography. Sorry about the "Windows 8.11" gag up there, by the way, that joke isn't funny any more. Ere long gone last year I do done did stick Windows 8 on an old ThinkPad X61, a 2ghz Core II Duo machine from 2006. Despite the generally horrified reaction that Windows 8 received in the specialist press it works surprisingly well in a mobile context - it's easy to forget that it was touted as a faster, slimmer alternative to Windows 7, and it feels fast even on such elderly hardware. Windows 8.1 doesn't add much of substance, but at least it doesn't hurt. Let's see what it's like.

But first, Windows 8. Look at it:

Let's imagine that I'm on the desktop, and I want to launch Windows Paint, so I fuck around with the Charms menu and there's a search box and let's try that and oh shit it tries to open the fucking store:

Well, Windows 8.1 is better, because it doesn't fuck around. It just takes you to the store straight away and fails to find Paint slightly quicker than before:

So how do you find Paint? Please, Windows 8, let me get what I want. This time. The odd relationship and interrelationship between the start screen and the desktop and the search functionality were a concern that lots of people discovered when the pre-release versions of Windows 8 came out, and unfortunately Windows 8.1 does very little to fix them. It's as if Microsoft really didn't care about the criticism. Windows 8 wasn't like any other post-95 incarnation of Windows, it was different.

But first, let's install Windows 8.1, as an upgrade from Windows 8.0. Windows 8.1 is also available as an official stand-alone DVD, unlike 8.0, which was only available as an OEM product. This was problematic; it seems that the OEM installation was tied in perpetuity to the machine on which it was first installed[1], but I am not a lawyer.

8.1 is available via the store, rather than Windows Update:

At this point the machine needs to restart. Linux fans will probably chuckle, because Linux never needs to be rebooted, which is important if you're running a nuclear reactor. Less so otherwise. Installation is really nothing. A rush and a push and it's finished. It would seem that Windows downloads a complete fresh operating system rather than a big patch, which might explain why you can't simply download the update on one of your machines and then transfer it to different machines.

By default Microsoft acts a bit like Overly Attached Girlfriend, which is worrying, because where do Microsoft's intentions lie? It's good that Oscar Wilde died a long time before he had a chance to see "let apps use my advertising ID for experiences across apps". He would have given up with writing if he had known that this was the future of the English language.

Microsoft should stop trying to make Bing happen. It's not going to happen.

Here's the new start screen. During installation it bugged me about my Microsoft account, but I've forgotten my password, and I guess that it reset my visual settings in retaliation. Hey, what's this thing in the corner?

There's a new arrow. Is it new? I can't remember it from before. Let's click on it:

Well, that certainly makes it a lot easier to get to the Apps view that I will never use. Let's see if we can find Paint from here:

I was looking for Paint and then I found Paint, and heaven knows I'm actually quite pleased. Well done, Microsoft! Seriously, this is frustration for no reason, and frustration for no reason is irritating.* An upgrade to 8.1 reinstalls all the apps you deleted, so that you can delete them again. I kept the calculator, because the thought of an app that turns my sophisticated dual-core laptop - the X61 is still a good piece of design, even seven years later - into a calculator amuses me.

* Sorry, that one was awful.

There used to be a group called The Lovin' Spoonful. Snap view is now slightly more flexible. As before, it doesn't work on the X61's old 1024x768 LCD, but with higher resolutions you can have have up to four apps per screen (as opposed to two beforehand), and you can position them arbitrarily across the screen rather than fixing them in a 75/25% ratio. Nonetheless it's still a usability nightmare and of dubious use.

It makes a bit more sense with multiple monitors, shown here with my ThinkPad X61's screen on the left, an external monitor on the rise right, two Snap apps at the top, desktop+Snap at the bottom:

It looks as if Paul McCartney is coming out of a psychedelic coffin. If we're being honest - I would never be anything less than honest with you, dear reader - this is the kind of thing that people do once, so that they can illustrate a blog post about doing it.

Here's the desktop, with the much-anticipated (cough) "start button":

Windows 8.1 takes away the Windows Experience Index score, by the way. The "about this computer" screen no longer has it. It was nice as a rough guide, at least to check if my system had acknowledged installing an SSD (for example). You can run it by opening an administrator's DOS prompt and entering winsat formal but there's no obvious way of actually seeing the results.

But let's click on the new (cough) "start button". Let's see the old start menu pop up! Yay! I can't wait. Deep in the cell of my heart I really would like to see the start menu again.

It's not strange, Microsoft just wants you to live your life this way-hey

Oh. No start menu. The new (cough) "start button" (air quotes) just duplicates the functionality of the Windows key. What a swizz! For most people the other reason for updating to 8.1 is that it can bypass the Start Screen entirely, although it's not obvious how you go about this. You need to right-click on the taskbar, like so:

And then you select "when I sign in or close all applications on a screen, go to the desktop instead of etc".

At this point it's a good idea to install Classic Shell. The combination of booting-to-the-desktop plus Classic Shell basically gives you The Windows 8 You Always Wanted. Classic Shell could boot to the desktop beforehand, but in my experience it wasn't as smooth as 8.1's implementation.

There are already a few updates:

Microsoft, so much to answer for. I wanted so badly to include more of Morrissey's solo lyrics, but not enough of his songs lend themselves to garnishing an article about Windows 8.1. Why does Windows bury its options away when Microsoft knows it makes things hard for people?

For a lark I decided to see if 8.1 knocked the machine's performance at all, so I loaded up HyperPi, and it actually took seven seconds less time to calculate Pi to two million digits than before. I'm guessing that this is down to shoddy testing on my part - I ran it once each time - but my subjective impression is that there is at the very least no obvious drop, no bloat, no juddery windows and constant fan noise.

Is there any point to 8.1 in that case? The (cough) "start button" is a LIE, there are updates to the apps that you will never use, and as before you have to install Classic Shell to get back the start menu, at which point you have something pretty good, faster than Windows 7 but not really worth the money. Unless you have a touchscreen PC, but I haven't got one. I haven't got one. I was tempted to buy one but a strange fear gripped me.

'cause it's not £25 any more. Back when I installed Windows 8.0, I upgraded from XP Professional - all the above malarky is actually built on an XP-Windows 8.0 upgrade - and the cost was £25. The kind of pricing model that Apple uses for OSX. Sadly it was a short-lived thing, and it's now £75 for an upgrade or £125 for the gooey kablooie full thing.

Put another way, if you have an old Windows 7 PC and you want to give it a new lease of life and you have £75 to spare, you can either upgrade to Windows 8.1 or you can buy a decent 120gb SSD for the same money, and install that instead. It'll be fussy depending on how your computer is set up, and you might have to spend a while shifting things off your boot partition to make space - assuming you have a boot partition - but unless and until Microsoft abruptly ceases support for Windows 7, I know which option I would prefer.

Postscript: Five Things Microsoft Could Do to Get Back its Mojo
In the words of The Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant, successful pop groups tend to go through an "imperial phase", during which they are at the height of their powers. It can only be recognised when it has passed, and it always passes.

The group puts out a much-anticipated, hugely popular album, preceded by a string of top singles, and then there's a cash-in film which has a limited cinema release. Slade had a film, Slade in Flame, the Spice Girls had Spice World, even the Pet Shop Boys had one (It Couldn't Happen Here, written about at great and fascinating length here for The Quietus). Usually the film is the high water mark, the peak of folly, and although the band might remain popular after that point it never recaptures its imperial phase.

The imperial phase becomes a pesky ghost, like Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol. Or Krapp's younger self, captured forever on tape. You can't go back and it will never be the same again. The mighty fall. Skip back to the previous post, and the Kodak-Fuji film price war of the 1990s; they were masters of the world, but the world changed.

Microsoft had an imperial phase too. There was a time when Microsoft was the company that everybody loved to hate. Bill Gates was both the richest and most evil man in the world. Windows was the worst thing ever. But Microsoft was top bastard. The company saw off IBM and Lotus and Corel and everybody and it was master of the world. Nowadays Microsoft is still massively successful and wealthy, and only a fool would write the company off, but the imperial phase has passed.

So how could Microsoft make something of Windows 8, and perhaps regain some of its mojo? Some of the evil glamour it used to have. Let's imagine that I'm completely amoral. When I see a device with a screen on it, my first thought should be "does that run Microsoft software? If not, why not? If it runs something else, how can I change that?"

1. Pricing and Editions. Windows 8 upgrade £15. Boxed retail copy £24.95. Boxed Windows 8 Server £175.50. No excuse not to have it. Have two editions of Windows 8 - Windows 8, which duplicates the current Windows 8 Pro, and Windows 8 Server, with extra functionality available as downloadable content from the store. The ultimate goal is to move to a model where Windows 8 is a modular system fed with downloadable content, so that over time £15 becomes £50, and £24.95 becomes £75, and £175.50 becomes... well, no upper limit for the server edition, the client is paying for it. DLC has been a smashing success in the computer gaming world, it can be a smashing success in the operating system world as well. You want to print a bunch of RAW files you've downloaded from your camera just by right-clicking on them and selecting send to printer? That'll be £4.95 please, for the Camera RAW Media Suite.

2. Own the Platform. Get on the phone to the world's motherboard manufacturers. The long-term goal is to come up with a standard UEFI BIOS interface that has a kind of cut-down Windows 8 start screen, that boots instantly and has basic internet functionality. Some motherboard manufacturers already make something similar - they call it a pre-OS environment - why not slap a Windows 8 Start Screen interface onto it? In fact this is something that Windows 8's Start Screen interface should have been written for in the first place. People wouldn't mind if it booted instantly and was sold explicitly as a taster of the "real" desktop. Gigabyte, Asus etc could sell motherboards with Windows 8 Start! Ready stickers on the packaging. The long-term goal is to either control or at least become the driving force behind the UEFI BIOS and thus the hardware. Microsoft seems to have started something like this already, with Secure Boot, which is more like the old Microsoft that we knew and loved.

3. Linux: Sleeping with the Enemy. Too far gone to destroy. Instead try to associate the free software movement with Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and the like, so that businessmen and system builders are suspicious. One classic tactic used by guilty-as-hell politicians is to accuse their accusers of the exact same crime. Make it so that free software advocates come across as hysterical clowns who can't be trusted. Hippies who hate the world of business, who want all information to be free - including your company's private information. Imply very loosely that if the choice is between the inevitability of having your data tapped by the NSA, e.g. Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, James Bond, upstanding professionals, versus a bunch of badly-dressed Judean Popular People's Liberation Front of Judea types who will sell your stuff to The Guardian, you'd be mad not to go with the former. Okay, Linux might be secure; but Linux people... can you trust them? NB This approach would go down well in the US and the UK, where the population are pro-US; in France it would be a bad idea. France is a big market but on the other hand it costs money to translate Windows into French, besides which what's the point? Spanish is the language of the future, not French.

4. Embrace and Extend Steam. Get on the phone to Gabe Newell of Valve. Pretend to be his friend. Be humble, tell him that the Windows games store is okay but Steam is even better, and you want to make the two of them compatible with each other. So that people can buy games from either the Windows games store or Steam and have the game appear in both stores. And you'll share revenue and perhaps let Steam use XBox hardware for the Steambox. Microsoft will need to know a bit more about how Steam works, of course, and will need a seat on the board whenever decisions are made. The ultimate goal here is to latch on to Steam, add things to Steam, and eventually either gain control of Steam or push it over a cliff - the classic embrace, extend, exterminate model. Mr Newell is no dummy and this is unlikely to work, but it gives some of Microsoft's people something to do, and perhaps they might learn something.

5. Windows 8. Last and least, make it so that Microsoft's salesmen can tout Windows 8 without having to qualify their statements or lie. Take a look at Ubuntu, and try to make it so that the general public associate all of Linux with Ubuntu, because Ubuntu's interface is just as problematic as Windows 8 (look, they're fighting amongst themselves). As for Windows 8 itself, rejig it a bit. At installation the user is given the choice of booting either to the Start Screen or the desktop, with prominent instructions given on how to change this. If the user decides to boot to the desktop, the Start Screen will become a bit like the Windows Media Centre or full-screen Steam, e.g. a portal that desktop users dive into. Give a team of half a dozen developers a week to copy Classic Shell, but strip out most of its functionality. Make a big song and dance about this in the media. Make it look as if you're "de-Stalinising" Microsoft now that Steve Ballmer has left. Make it so that installing Windows 8.2 disables an existing installation of Classic Shell.