While there are certainly plenty of arguments for and against Windows 10, for users who treat their desktops, notebooks or tablets like nothing more than large-display smartphones many of Windows 10’s new features make sense. If you’ve already thrown in the towel and become a co-dependent computer user, nothing Microsoft is doing with Windows 10 is any different than what Google, Amazon and others have been doing to you for years. Picking up on a subplot in the previous post, however, the rollout of Windows 10 should give anyone pause if they use their computer to create.
The problem with Windows 10 is that there’s a big difference between having badly-behaved or data raping apps on my computer and having a badly-behaved data-raping computer. The operating system on my machine isn’t just another program, it’s the most privileged program from an administrative standpoint, meaning it must be the most secure. Windows has always been full of holes, and its registry is a mess, but with some care it was possible to keep the bad guys out, whether the bad guys were hackers or high-gloss Silicon Valley corporations. Windows 10 changes all that, because Windows 10 is designed to serve Microsoft’s competitive needs first and user needs second.
I do not think of my computer as simply a large-display smartphone. My computer is used for productivity — meaning mostly writing, but also other tasks. From that perspective, whatever advantages Windows 10 offers, it also includes several serious drawbacks regarding productivity and security, and one feature in particular that is a deal breaker. Fortunately, I believe Microsoft will ultimately be compelled to change that feature, at which point Windows 10 might become a viable option.
Windows 10 in Context
While people have been pronouncing the desktop dead for years, that kind of click-bait was never about productivity, but instead about mass-market hardware and software. Even at the peak of the desktop as a platform, only a small number of people ever used their computer to make anything, while everyone else used it to send email because that’s all there was. Over the past decade fewer and fewer individuals are using desktop computers because they don’t need a desktop to send a pithy text or tweet, or to ogle a scantily clad image. And of course you can’t lug a desktop around with you, where back in the day you actually had to leave your online life behind and live in the real world at least part of the time, which of course proved traumatizing for many.
Still, while the move to all things mobile is not surprising, the speed with which that transition has impacted hardware and software, to say nothing of dumbing-down the internet as both a resource and a community, continues to catch me off guard. To comprehend that change in full consider Windows 10 in parallel with Skylake, Intel’s new slate of ‘tock‘ chips that will be released in the coming days. Performance increases are expected to be modest — say on the order of ten percent — but significant gains will be made with the new chipset, and particularly the way the new CPU’s handle memory and move data. (Microsoft and Intel have always worked hand-in-hand when it comes to major OS releases.)
In terms of CPU power, there really is no need for an increase. Processors are plenty powerful as they are, and if you need more muscle you can always upgrade to a workstation. With the advent of 4K monitors however, and the ever-growing influence of video, moving information is now as important as calculating the results of user inputs in a spreadsheet or fast-twitch game. Paired with Windows 10, Intel’s latest chips are perfectly positioned to maximize all of the non-productivity computing that people have come to take for granted over the past two or three decades, and in that there’s a lot to like.
For many people the biggest concern about Windows 10 is the unparalleled access that the OS has to user data. That is of course the whole point of Windows 10 from Microsoft’s perspective, but it’s also a double-edged sword. If Microsoft takes the wrong data, or allows data to migrate away from Microsoft, not only could the company face a backlash at the consumer level, at the regulatory level it could wind up back in court on anti-trust grounds. In fact, the people most likely to make the latter case will be Google, Amazon and others, who, for the first time, suddenly find themselves in the second row when it comes to exploiting user data from Windows machines. Like the battle to have the fastest pipes on Wall St., whoever has first access to user data stands to profit from that access the most. If Microsoft can now harvest data both en mass and at the individual level, which other companies may have no access or delayed access to, it will be in a commanding position in the marketplace.
While there has been a lot of virtual ink spilled arguing that Microsoft’s privacy policies are clear, or at least clear enough, nothing could be further from the truth — except perhaps Microsoft’s EULA. Despite plenty of legally non-binding assurances, Microsoft has reserved the right to share data with anyone and intentionally obscured the degree to which data is being collected. Any individual with serious concerns about personal privacy has clear grounds to object to Windows 10 on that basis alone.
The Deal Breaker
As a practical matter, however, Windows 10’s privacy abuses, as well as most of the other negative aspects of the OS, are incidental to productivity. You can either shut off the stuff you don’t like or work around it and still get the job done, even if Microsoft is ripping you off in the background. There is one new change, however, that threatens the very premise of maintaining a stable computer, and that’s Microsoft’s insistence on forced updates. While certainly desirable from Microsoft’s point of view — particularly when new computer users are ever-more-oblivious to the complexity of the hardware and software they’re using — the idea that an autonomous network can take control of my main productivity tool at any time is anathema.
What happens if Microsoft updates its OS and consequently breaks some functionality, or worse, bricks my machine? Unfortunately, since I won’t know what was installed, if I’m even aware that a patch was installed, I won’t be able to identify the source of the problem. Will Microsoft step in and help me, assuming my computer can still connect to the internet? No, Microsoft will not step in and help me — at least not until another 10,000 users are affected and it becomes expedient to do so in terms of public relations.
In effect, with forced updates I’m giving Microsoft the keys to my computer after they have proven repeatedly that that’s an extremely bad idea. Even assuming that each update works flawlessly, the fact that I can’t control when they run means I may experience intermittent performance hits which won’t be apparent as to cause. For example, over the past year I tried two different anti-virus programs and eventually had to get rid of both because they insisted on performing updates, downloads and scans in the background without letting me know they were active. One minute my computer would be working fine, the next minute it would slow to a crawl or hang for reasons I could not understand. Only by checking which processes were running and noting a spike in CPU usage was I able to locate the problem each time. (Easy enough, yes, but today the average computer user probably doesn’t even know how to do that.)
Just as most computer users don’t seem to care how much personal information is scraped or how it’s used to exploit them, I think most computer users will be perfectly happy with automatic updates — at least until something goes wrong, at which point they will be equally clueless about who to blame. The defining characteristic of all those users is not ignorance or naivete, however, but the fact that they do not actively manage the computers they use. They push buttons, they touch icons, they scroll and swipe, but they do not manage the hardware and software that makes all of that possible, so Microsoft is stepping in to do that for them. And overall I think Microsoft will probably do the better job.
While Microsoft certainly profits from forced updates by being able to keep what is now essentially a distributed, networked OS updated on millions of machines at the same time, that won’t necessarily decrease the total number of problems that occur as Windows 10 interfaces with all of the hardware in the wild. For Windows 10 to work as intended it would have to be installed on hardware that was standardized and exhaustively tested both as to individual components and full configurations, and that’s never going to happen. Mate a perfectly acceptable video card with a perfectly acceptable motherboard and for some arcane reason Windows 10 may throw random errors or trigger random crashes, which it may then set out to solve by downloading the wrong update at the wrong time.
Even if Windows 10 and your computer hardware do get along, there’s also the problem of scheduling, and the fact that most users will no longer have any control over that process. If you leave your machine on twenty-four hours a day updates may run at night while you’re sleeping, but since you can’t schedule them they may also run while you’re in the middle of a critical project, or trying to update a critical program, or download or upload a critical file. If you do shut off your machine when you’re done with it — which is of long-established benefit to Windows because it forces the OS to reinitialize — you may find that an update begins as soon as you log on, slowing down your machine or preventing you from doing whatever you logged on to do. And of course you might also be stranded if an update is running when you try to log off. Will there be updates that require a restart in order to install sequential updates in the proper order? Will those restarts be voluntary, or might Windows decide to reboot your machine while you’re working? If you can delay that reboot, why can’t you toggle updates on and off, even if you can’t choose which updates are being applied?
If these concerns seem overblown, consider that updating any aspect of your computer usually comes with a reminder that you should back up your data before doing so. Even a WordPress blog like this one, hosted on a separate server, warns me to back up my database and site files before I install a new version of WP or the theme package I use. And rightly so, because nobody who ships software can ever predict all of the problems that might arise when a new batch of code interacts with all of the possible hardware configurations in existence, to say nothing of playing nice with server software or any installed plugins. If I can’t schedule updates on my desktop computer, how can I ever be sure I’ve backed up my critical files before Microsoft forces a potentially disabling change?
In short, I can’t, and at a very basic level that’s not just bad practice, it’s nuts. Meaning at some point, and probably fairly soon, that single feature is going to cost somebody a lot more than a reboot. Until Microsoft enables the selective downloading and installation of updates, as it used to with Windows Update, Ill be sitting on the sidelines, looking for another solution, and I don’t think I’ll be alone. There are going to be a lot of individuals, to say nothing of businesses large and small, that will see Windows 10 as nothing more than a self-inflicted vulnerability because of forced updates, and they’ll be right in that assessment. Whether there will be enough holdouts to force Microsoft’s hand, or whether Microsoft’s commitment going forward is only to the infantalized, data-rich user, remains to be seen.
— Mark Barrett