It's Windows *10*, Because It's 10 Years Behind Open Source

I don't write about Microsoft much here. That's largely because, as I noted recently, open source has won. Well, it's won in the field of supercomputers, cloud computing, Web servers, mobilesystems, embedded systems and the Internet of Things. Of course, it hasn't won on the desktop - although there are some interesting indications that even there things may be changing. That means Wednesday's launch of Windows 10 is still important, since it affects the daily lives of many people - far too many. Here, I want to focus on a few key aspects that emerged:

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday unveiled a new generation of Windows, with a wide range of experiences designed to usher in a new era of more personal computing, as well as two new devices designed to extend the Windows experience from large screens to no screens. Windows 10 will be delivered as a service to offer a safer, innovative and updated experience for the supported lifetime of the device. A free upgrade for Windows 10 will be made available to customers running Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1, who upgrade in the first year.

It's amusing that Microsoft chose to emphasise there the availability of a free upgrade. For users of open source, the idea that you have to pay to keep your code up-to-date is, of course, absurd. And it's a sign of the continuing downward pressure that free software is exerting on Microsoft's prices that the company has brought this in. Some people even suggested that Windows 10 should be available free of charge, and I predict that one day Windows will indeed cost nothing to acquire, since Microsoft will have moved on to a service-based business.

Indeed, Microsoft itself points out that shift is already underway in another Web page on the launch:

Today was a monumental day for us on the Windows team because we shared our desire to redefine the relationship we have with you – our customers. We announced that a free upgrade for Windows 10 will be made available to customers running Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and Windows Phone 8.1 who upgrade in the first year after launch.

This is more than a one-time upgrade: once a Windows device is upgraded to Windows 10, we will continue to keep it current for the supported lifetime of the device – at no cost. With Windows 10, the experience will evolve and get even better over time. We’ll deliver new features when they’re ready, not waiting for the next major release. We think of Windows as a Service – in fact, one could reasonably think of Windows in the next couple of years as one of the largest Internet services on the planet.

Just as it was inevitable that the cost of Windows would tend to zero, so it should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Microsoft has been forced to adopt a more open, collaborative approach in order to be able to develop such complex code:

Together with our Windows Insiders, we’re well way on our way to making Windows 10 the largest-ever open collaborative development effort Microsoft has ever shipped. Since we launched the Windows Insider Program in September, we’ve been joined by 1.7 million Windows Insiders, who have delivered over 800,000 pieces of feedback. We are truly co-creating the future of Windows with you and we’re humbled by your valuable role in this new open development process.

Of course, the power of involving users actively in the "open development process" is something that I and many others in the open source world have been pointing out for, well, a couple of decades now. I knew that Microsoft would adopt this approach for the very simple reason that it is better than the old way of trying to create code in a top-down fashion. Microsoft's failure in markets outside the desktop shows that its guesses about what users really wanted have been consistently wrong, whereas the rise of open source there - driven by users' needs - is proof that "open development" does indeed work.

Talking of free software's spread to other devices, here's what Microsoft says on the subject:

But it’s not enough to deliver great software experiences. Windows 10 supports the broadest device family ever – from PCs, tablets and 2-in-1s to phones to Xbox and the Internet of Things. And today, we welcomed two new devices to the Windows 10 family: Microsoft Surface Hub and Microsoft HoloLens.

Well, "broadest family ever" compared to Windows in the past. Linux was being ported to many dozens of platforms a decade and a half ago. Indeed, I've always thought this to be one of its greatest strengths: the fact that anyone can - and does - create a version for any hardware. As I've noted, this makes it the only solution for the Internet of Things, which will - if the pundits are to be believed - involve not just tens of billions of devices, but millions of different *types* of devices. It's much harder to port closed source code to such a large collection - not just technically, but also in terms of sorting out licensing and permissions.

Yes, the HoloLens looks quite interesting (unlike the Surface Hub, which looks dull), but it remains to be seen whether it is widely adopted, or whether it's just another Google Glass: nice as a concept, but not much use.

Of course Google Glass runs on Linux, so that's another area where Microsoft is playing catch-up. Indeed, as I hope the above makes clear, Windows 10 is a wonderfully high-profile admission by Microsoft that open source was right about just about everything, even if the company's tardy adoption of some of free software's key ideas comes too late to save it from a continuing slide into irrelevance - albeit a highly profitable one.

The reason why Microsoft is doomed to see its influence slip away is revealed elsewhere in the post about its latest launch:

Windows 10 is the first step to an era of more personal computing. This vision framed our work on Windows 10, where we are moving Windows from its heritage of enabling a single device – the PC – to a world that is more mobile, natural and grounded in trust. We believe your experiences should be mobile – not just your devices. Technology should be out of the way and your apps, services and content should move with you across devices, seamlessly and easily. In our connected and transparent world, we know that people care deeply about privacy – and so do we. That’s why everything we do puts you in control – because you are our customer, not our product.

Yes, people do indeed care deeply about privacy - not least because of Edward Snowden's revelations. And among those are indications that Microsoft provides zero-day vulnerabilities to US agencies for them to exploit against users of Microsoft's products:

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), the world’s largest software company, provides intelligence agencies with information about bugs in its popular software before it publicly releases a fix, according to two people familiar with the process. That information can be used to protect government computers and to access the computers of terrorists or military foes.

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft and other software or Internet security companies have been aware that this type of early alert allowed the U.S. to exploit vulnerabilities in software sold to foreign governments, according to two U.S. officials. Microsoft doesn’t ask and can’t be told how the government uses such tip-offs, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because the matter is confidential.

Despite Microsoft's claims that "everything we do puts you in control", the black-box nature of its code means that you are *never* completely in control - the software can impose its own rules on actions and there is nothing you can do about it, either technically or legally. Taken together with the ever-present risk that flaws in Microsoft's programs are being exploited by intelligence agencies - both in the US and elsewhere - this is why, ultimately, you cannot trust Microsoft's products. In fact, when it comes to crucial areas such as security, privacy and trust, Microsoft is not just 10 years behind free software, but belongs to an entirely different geological era.

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