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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 23, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

The Suicide of Windows

It's amusing to read the news that there has been a sudden rush of computer users "abandoning" Windows XP.

What makes it funny is that there is no corresponding rush of computer users adopting Windows 8.

That's because Windows 8 is worse than stupid. It's suicidal. It is a sign of Microsoft's deathwish.

So as Microsoft announces that it will stop supporting Windows XP -- the version that worked best -- Windows users realized that the only choice they had was to transition to Windows 7 while they still could.

Already it's impossible to find Windows 7 machines for sale in the office supply stores. If you want one, you have to order it from online suppliers like Dell, and you have to buy it from Dell's business division rather than the home division.

Once you learn the annoyingly arcane protocols, Windows 7 networks reasonably well -- essential for our home business, where eight or nine computers are routinely linked together, passing files back and forth.

Windows 8, though, is Microsoft's tacit announcement that it has decided to get out of the computer business.

Windows 8 is Microsoft's clumsy, user-hostile attempt to "blend" tablet and computer operating systems.

Nobody actually wants it. Here's what I want: A machine that goes back and forth between tablet and laptop. That's what I thought I bought when I picked up a Windows 8 convertible a month or so ago.

What I got was a machine that is really lousy at both jobs.

Let's just start with convertability. I'm typing on the laptop, but then I flip over to the tablet. So far so good. Everything works. Until the first time I need to enter a password in an online form inside my browser.

With my Android tablet and my Android smartphone, this is never a problem. The moment I poke my finger at a text-entry box, the virtual keyboard pops up. I can make it go away when I want to, just by hitting one of the buttons always at the bottom of the screen.

But on Windows 8.1, I poked the password box and ... nothing.

So apparently I need to issue a separate command in order to get the virtual keyboard. I have no idea what that command might be. So I give up and flip back to laptop mode. But I'm wondering what I would have done if all I had was the tablet. How would I have found a virtual keyboard in order to type in that password?

Windows 8 makes it almost impossible to install programs or tablet apps and then find them. I bought two trivial games from Microsoft's pathetic, unnavigable online store, after being forced to reset my password about six times because one part of the store couldn't talk to another.

Then I couldn't find them on my computer. They didn't show up when I brought up their deeply annoying, territory-pillaging "start" display. When I tried to navigate to installed programs using the vestigial My Computer display, I still couldn't find them.

So I went back to their nightmare "store" to see if something had gone wrong with the download. No, said the store -- those apps were already installed on my computer.

Where? How could I find them?

If you are on their horrible "start" display, if you happen to pass your cursor over the lower-left quadrant, a down-arrow shows up. It doesn't say anything. But if you click on it, you get a new display -- and this one showed those two games. Along with a lot of crapware that I didn't want or need. Who knew I "owned" those programs?

Wait -- I forgot for a moment that I was dealing with Microsoft. I don't own those programs. Microsoft owns my computer, and insists that I obey them and jump through endless meaningless hoops in order to do anything. And they put whatever they want on my computer.

That "start" display consists of huge slabs of solid colors, each with a generic label, leading nowhere that I ever want to go. Apparently this is their Windows phone display. But I'm coming to Windows 8 from the computer world, not the smartphone world. It looked like garbage to me.

The old Start menu on XP and 7 just gave me a list and I picked from it. It left my whole screen visible except for a strip along the lefthand edge. But Windows 8's "start" pushes everything else out of the way.

When I opened a browser, it also took the whole screen. With no help from the software, I learned how to split the screen so the browser was on one side, and one other piece of software on the other.

And that's it. You can't subdivide the screen any further.

Apparently this is called Snap View, and some computer writers think this is an advantage Windows 8 has over Android. Maybe that's true on a teeny tiny phone screen, though I've never, not once, wished for this "feature" on my Android, since flipping from one program to another is so easy, without loss of data or position on the apps that are not onscreen.

Wasn't the concept of Windows that I could open multiple programs and resize and reshape them however I wanted? With all the earlier Windows systems, I can have five or six things open, with corners visible, and click my way from one to another at need. But with Snap View, I can have exactly two programs visible at once. And, most of the time, at least one of them is a window I don't want.

And with 8, I couldn't find any gesture that allowed me to close either side of the Snap View dead end.

For instance, there's a log-on screen where I'm supposed to enter a password in order to access the computer. Since I had never assigned a log-on password, I wondered what to enter.

Turns out that in order to log-on to my own Windows 8 computer, I have to use the sign-on sequence I created many years ago in order to buy something at the Microsoft online store.

No way did I remember that password. But there's an option to reset it. This brought up, on the other half of the Snap View split screen, the reset-password page, where I entered some data and was informed that I would now receive an email providing me with a code to verify that I'm really me.

Then it sat there waiting for me to provide whatever code showed up in my email.

The trouble was, I couldn't get rid of either display in order to check my email. That's right -- because both windows were waiting for user input, I couldn't minimize them or shove them out of the way.

No, don't write to me and tell me that there's "an easy way to do that." It will involve at least two non-intuitive steps, and my point is that Microsoft maneuvered me into a corner from which I could not escape using any method apparent on the screen.

I did find an easy way -- I opened the email on my windows 7 machine. You know, the machine that doesn't require me to use a password to log on to my own computer.

I later found there was an option to replace the Windows 8 password logon with a four-digit PIN. But there's no way to choose to have no log-on at all.

(There's an option that says you can eliminate that step, and I chose it, but it had no effect. The log-on page blocks my way no matter what.)

The hallmark of Windows 8 is that you keep getting into boxes from which there is no escape. There's no back button, no undo, no chance to repent of your mistake. You're stuck at a dead-end and you can't move on.

On all previous Windows versions, there has been an X in the upper righthand corner. Click on it, and the window closes, usually closing the program, too.

No such X on Windows 8. In fact, there's no visible way to close any window or any program when you're in tablet mode.

(Even CTL-ALT-DEL didn't work, because I would see the task manager for a split second and then the Snap View screen popped back on top of it, so I couldn't select a program and then kill it.)

I have since learned that if you shove the cursor into the lower lefthand corner of the screen, a menu comes up showing all open programs. If you rightclick on the program you want to close, shutting it down comes up as one of the choices.

Why should I have to do three completely unindicated things in order to close a program or window? Why did a simple, obvious, visible device -- the X -- need to be replaced by a hidden menu which required an undeclared rightclick in order to finally get the choice that used to be accomplished with the X?

In what insane, evil committee meeting in Redmond was this stupid, stupid, stupid decision made?

"Oh, but we had to make it a process that could be done with your finger!"

Yeah, well, I've got a finger for you, sir. Because you have lied to us and called this "Windows" and "a computer operating system" and "a tablet operating system" and it is none of the above.

Android manages to make closing a program easy. I never have the slightest problem maneuvering through Android. It has its clunky moments, but the operating system is helpful. And there aren't many frequently-repeated operations that require me to drill down through two or three menus without any indication that such menus even exist.

We don't want a laptop that requires us to touch the screen. When I'm operating a convertible with the keyboard active, I want to use a mouse or a pad. Why? Because that's where my hand already is.

But if, in laptop mode, I have to raise my finger to the screen and accurately touch a particular point, it's going to be a disaster.

Airplanes and trains vibrate. Touching a screen accurately is hard because our hand isn't rooted.

On a tablet held by one hand, we hook or rest the other hand at the edge in order to anchor it. Then our finger easily maneuvers to the point we want to click on because when the tablet moves, that hand, anchored, moves with it.

But there's no anchor in laptop mode. Our finger floats in midair, and the only point of connection is with our shoulder. When the laptop bounces a little, our hand does not bounce with it.

We learned this from touchpads on airplane seatbacks. You have to anchor your hand by leaning your pinky against the edge of the touch screen. Even then, each jounce of the plane causes you to punch the wrong answer on the trivia game. (Yes, suckers -- I'm the OSC who cows you by always winning the Delta trivia game by outlandishly high scores.)

But even if the laptop is on a desk and you're not having an earthquake at the moment, the touchscreen will still be annoying and potentially painful because the movement to the screen will always require that you use your shoulder muscles to raise your arm and hold it suspended in midair until your finger manages to find the right spot on the screen.

Plus, some of us need to keep the screen farther away from our eyes than the length of our arms. Some us like to lean back to type. Our fingers can easily reach the keyboard and mouse. But we have to sit back up and lean forward to touch the screen.

Did Microsoft buy stock in Good Posture? Do they get a nickel every time we have to sit straight up in order to touch our computer screens?

Tablets work great with touchscreens. Computers suck with them.

But Windows 8 arbitrarily requires you to touch the laptop screen from time to time. Why? Because in that same meeting of fools and torturers in Redmond, they gleefully said, "Why not? It will train them to use the touch commands!"

Here's my summary: Windows 8 is a lousy, crippled computer operating system. It undoes almost everything that Windows was finally doing well, and forces us to drill through endless layers of hidden menus in order to do simple operations that we used to be able to do with a single motion.

Unlike Android and iOS, Windows 8 doesn't help us in any way, doesn't anticipate anything we want to do, and forces us to keep trying all kinds of meaningless gestures in hopes that one or another of them will finally do something useful.

Windows 8 has already forced thousands of Windows XP users to downgrade to Windows 7 in order to forestall being forced to use Windows 8.

Maybe Microsoft thinks they can weather this the way they weathered the Vista debacle -- do a better job with Windows 9, and figure most people will then skip over Windows 8 the way we skipped over Vista.

But back when Vista came out, Android wasn't there. It was either Windows or Apple. (Or Unix -- but that's another story.) Now, Apple is just as evil as Microsoft about owning your computer and controlling the way you use it. The difference is that Apple doesn't introduce new products until they actually work.

At Microsoft, since it has a structure of committees where apparently nobody does the job of Tom Hanks in Big ("What's fun about that?"), nobody cares whether the operating system does anything better than its predecessor or, for that matter, anything at all.

I think they're just relieved and grateful when they get something that doesn't crash right out of the box. It's amateur hour.

But now we can take that laptop with no actual operating system (since Windows 8 is an obstacle course, not an OS) and return it to the manufacturer. Then we can buy a tablet that runs Android, and even though it isn't as smooth as an iPad, it gets better.

My Android-running Samsung minitablet from Verizon had some real problems when I first bought it early this fall. Some of the apps I ran would have windows go black for no reason, and I had to reboot. Because I had been trained by Windows for so many years, I accepted this for a while.

But updates to both the Android operating system and the software I was using have eliminated all those problems.

Do you understand what that means? Without my doing anything, all my problems with that model self-healed. This means that the software developers and the Android shepherds for that device noticed the problem and fixed it.

Supposedly Microsoft does the same -- after all, I'm running the semi-healed Windows 8.1, proving that Microsoft cares!

They don't care enough. And they are structurally incapable of undoing horrible, stupid mistakes. Their whole approach was wrong.

If you're going to do a version of Windows that still runs full-fledged Windows programs, but also allow us to use the same OS on a tablet, then the transition should have been seamless.

Instead, Microsoft decided to make us use their unpopular WindowsPhone look-and-feel as the default. Even on a laptop or desktop computer. In other words, they don't show us anything that looks familiar, out of the box. Only the six people with WindowsPhones will know what they're looking at.

Here's the hilarious thing. The old desktop is still there. When I finally found it (it's one of the choices listed when you click on the lower-left corner), it was like the sun finally coming up. Look! 8 is actually Windows after all!

Why wasn't that the default coming out of the box? I bought a computer, not a phone. Why not start with the familiar computer screen and then gradually introduce me to the tablet look-and-feel?

Why does the tablet have to look like a system designed for a tiny phone? Why not have it look like Windows, but with larger buttons on the taskbars? A bigger X in the corner? Why not, in tablet mode, let us arrange and resize windows however we want, just as we used to when Windows was a computer operating system?

Why doesn't 8 sense when I flip from computer to tablet mode and switch with me? When I hide the real keyboard, why doesn't it automatically pop up with virtual keyboards, the way my Android phone and tablet do -- in both landscape and portrait mode. (Snap View only works in landscape mode.)

Windows 8 could have been a hit, if they had remembered that it was supposed to be Windows, and it was supposed to be for computers. Instead, they ported a smartphone interface as the default for computers and large tablets, where every decision made for the phone interface is useless or wrong for these bigger jobs.

Yes, you can mostly work around the stupid decisions Microsoft made. Eventually. Though there are some I haven't figured out, so that my only exit is to reboot my Windows 8 machine and try to remember not to do whatever it was that got me into a corner from which there was no escape.

Our real hope is this: There are already some attempts out there to adapt the Android interface for laptops and other computers. Chromebooks aren't it -- I don't love cloud computing because of how often I'm in a place with no access to the internet. I'm talking about PCs running on Android.

The first couple of Android computers are really for special purposes -- store displays, where it's assumed (correctly) that most customers will know how to navigate on the touch screen. Clever idea. But it's only the first step.

All we need is to have someone port serious business software to Android, adapted to fullsize screens and physical keyboards as an option. If Corel would give us WordPerfect for Android, I'd make the switch instantly.

WordPerfect is the writing software that serious writers use, because unlike Word, which forces you to write the way you're told, WordPerfect lets the writer be in control at all times. Any machine that doesn't run WordPerfect, I can't use; but if it does run WordPerfect, I'm home free.

Of course, Microsoft won't port Office or any of its parts to Android, not now, because that would mean surrender to the enemy.

However, all those Office workalike programs have no vested interest in Windows. Microsoft doesn't share revenue with them. So they could port their versions of spreadsheet, word processor, powerpoint, mailing list, and what-all to Android and still be file-compatible with Office.

These workalike makers will have years without Microsoft in the game. They can keep adapting their serious business software to the Android environment, each in their own way, competing freely with each other and therefore getting better and better all the time.

Once Android starts catching on in the marketplace as a real computer operating system with an easy transition between tablet and computer -- not an obstacle course like Windows 8 -- Microsoft will get really nervous.

First, they'll give away Windows 9 for free. But Windows 9 will already be too little, too late. People will look for their favorite Android apps and they won't be there on Windows 9. They'll keep switching to Android machines because free is as cheap as Windows 9 can get -- and Android is already free.

So Microsoft will have to compete on quality, something they've never had to do before. They don't know how. They have always released software that was somewhere between clunky and nonfunctional, and we put up with it because we had no choice.

Too late, Microsoft will panic and try to port Office to the Android system. With Windows drying up as a revenue stream, all they have is Office, so they'll have to make sure it exists on the Android system.

Only, because they're Microsoft, the port will be clunky, awkward, crashy, and -- worst of all -- it will still be Office. Where once they had a virtual monopoly, they'll be entering a wide-open business-software marketplace with no competitive edge at all.

Remember how Office "won" the war with WordPerfect? Microsoft began to give Word away free with Windows.

Even though Word was crap, it was free crap, and that was the preferred price for executives who made the buying decisions but didn't actually have to use the programs. Once everybody had Word on their machines, it became the default for transferring documents. WordPerfect went from total dominance of the market to a tiny niche.

Once WordPerfect was gone, Microsoft started charging full price for Office.

They could get away with monopolistic practices like that because they were getting paid for Windows, so they could afford to give away Word for a while. (They could also pay for lawyers to fight antitrust lawsuits until their competitors were dead and it didn't matter.)

But with Android increasingly dominating the PC market, they won't be able do the free giveaway trick with Office. Or if they do, they'll have no revenue stream at all. They've got a lot of money now, but with less and less coming in, how long can they give away Windows 9 and the Android version of Office?

And even free, they can't compete. Because Microsoft has never had to compete and they don't know how. Not a clue. Their whole organization is set up as a monopoly that can dictate to its customers. If they had any system for finding out what people actually want, they would never have released Windows 8 or 8.1 in their present form.

History is repeating itself. Remember that IBM created the PC market. They made a crappy computer, deliberately crippling it so it wouldn't compete with the mainframes that they saw as their "real" business. But the rule was "you can't get fired for buying IBM," so businesses adopted the second-rate IBM PC in droves.

Software makers went crazy creating programs for the IBM PC. The way they've gone crazy making great apps for Android.

Then Compaq and some others began selling "clones" -- workalike machines that ran, not PC-DOS, but MS-DOS -- the exact same operating system, but without IBM's permission. So almost anything that ran on an IBM PC would run on the clones.

IBM tried to sue them out of business, but failed. Yet as IBM's market share dropped, they just couldn't adapt to the loss of their monopoly. IBM couldn't come close to the prices the clonemakers were charging. They tried taking the high road and making premium machines. But, like Microsoft, IBM kept making really dumb decisions that finally took the entire business out of their hands.

They went from having a monopoly in a growing computer market to being an extremely minor player in a much, much larger computer market. And so they finally gave up, sold off the what PC business they still had, and went back to being a mainframe company. There are no IBM PCs today.

That's where Microsoft has decided to go. Like IBM, they think they can make arbitrary decisions and ram them down our throats. And for a while, it worked. But just as IBM lost when it had to fight the clone wars, when Microsoft has to compete with Android computers, they will certainly lose.

Time to sell your Microsoft stock, kids. The Titanic just ran into Iceberg Android. They still think they're unsinkable. But now is the time to get into the lifeboats.

No, no, that's not quite right. The iceberg is Windows 8. Android is the lifeboat.

So would somebody please get Android up and running on a laptop?

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