Some of you may have noticed this before, but for those who aren’t familiar with this site, let me start off this article by saying that I’m a lifelong Windows user on the desktop side. This makes me a bit of a rare bird as a writer for an Apple site, but if you look at device ownership statistics, I actually write from a perspective that is quite common among iPad and iPhone users, overall.
I use Windows for work because I don’t have a choice. The apps I need to use for work aren’t available for any other OSs, so moving isn’t an option. It is what it is. While I don’t dislike Windows, I also don’t have any great love for it or devotion to it. Windows 10 gets the job done for work and that’s fine. I do think Microsoft has at least done a good job of making Windows 10 more secure and stable over the last few years.
As for the Mac, since I use my iPad Pro and iPhone for anything personal and have a work laptop with me most of the time, including at home, I just don’t have any incentive to introduce yet another OS into my life. I may try out a MacBook one of these days, but it seems like a lot of money to spend on something I don’t need.
I bring all of this up to say that, despite what you may think of the title of this article, I’m not just an Apple fan taking a cheap shot at Microsoft. I write this as a long-time Windows user who has gotten very used to disappointment over the last 10 years.
We’ve had a few weeks now to get familiar with the new trackpad and mouse support that Apple added to iPadOS 13.4. If you recall, several fans of and writers who are focused on Microsoft took their shots at Apple afterwards, claiming they copied the Surface and admitted that Microsoft’s tablet philosophy was the right one. I found these shallow, hardware-focused arguments to be quite flawed, as pointed out here. There isn’t anything about Microsoft’s software philosophy and implementation for tablets and touch that has been even remotely successful. Apple certainly didn’t copy any of that.
Despite the shots and shade, the reviews of iPadOS trackpad support have been overwhelmingly positive. Ironically, this includes notable Microsoft-focused writer Tom Warren, who wrote one of the articles mocking Apple, and noted Microsoft expert writer and podcaster Paul Thurrott. While many Windows users will contend that Apple still hasn’t brought their tablets to a level of full parity (and I still agree that they have plenty of work to do) pretty much anyone who has used this new iPad feature agrees that it suits the platform very well and is easy for an experienced mouse user to just pick up and work with.
The tables have turned a bit
This week brought bad news for Microsoft fans. Microsoft expert Mary Jo Foley wrote that the coming Surface Neo dual-screen device has been delayed. Considering that hype around the device when it was announced by Panos Panay last year, this certainly comes as a disappointment for some. It also can’t be completely unexpected because of the impact of COVID-19 on the tech sector and its supply chains. Just to be clear, I don’t fault Microsoft at all for this.
However, the bigger issue is the Windows 10X OS variant that is supposed to power the Surface Neo. I listened to the latest What the Tech podcast and Paul Thurrott’s take on the coming Windows variant was much more negative than I expected. Basically, he swept Microsoft’s marketing spin aside and revealed that there are still fundamental issues with this coming version of Windows.
According to Ms Foley’s article, Microsoft isn’t shelving Windows 10X, but will focus it more on “single-screen” experiences. In fact, the dual-screen support will be completely withheld until next year, meaning that third-party manufacturers also won’t be able to make use of it, either. The thought from experts like Foley and Thurrott is that 10X will be geared toward devices that compete with Chromebooks for now
However, Thurrott’s take on 10X went deeper than Microsoft’s projections and spin. According to the discussion on the podcast, there are problems with 10X that could hinder adoption. He said that the early focus on associating 10X with dual-screen devices was in fact to limit the scope of early adoption so that it could be brought up to speed slowly and the best features migrated over to Windows 10 over time.
However, now Microsoft is having to shift gears and find another way to soft-launch Windows 10X in a way that doesn’t expose the issues with legacy compatibility. Maybe they can find that with cheap laptops that compete with Chromebook, but Microsoft has stumbled here before. Remember Windows 10S? The origin of Windows on ARM? Windows RT? We have been here before and this hasn’t worked out well yet.
According to Mr Thurrott, Microsoft still needs to take this limited release route with 10X. Legacy app compatibility and sandboxing are not working all that well at this time and it may be some time before they do. He specifically said that legacy virtualization and high-end PC games will likely never work with the new container system. Those kinds of resource-intensive apps will have to be re-compiled into a native versions for the new 10X container system.
In other words, the supposed advantage that Surface devices have today, that you can have some kind of “best of both worlds” experience combining legacy apps with touch and pen input, will go out the window to a degree with 10X. It isn’t a short-term fix to modernize the Windows UI. It is a long-term transition that will eventually force developers to rework their applications to remain relevant. Windows 10 won’t disappear while 10X evolves, but the implications are very clear- eventually it will be phased out as it exists today in favor of or merged together with the new. Well, if Microsoft doesn’t repeat their previous transition mistakes, that is.
Speaking of transitions
Now, Apple has already been down this road, as well. They went from Classic Mac OS to OS X. Later on they transitioned from PowerPC chips to Intel. Now, developers and users have the option to transition to iPadOS, as well. However, the advantage that Apple has over Microsoft is that they are ahead of the game. Apple handled two of these transitions successfully and many developers have brought their wares over to the iPad and App Store over the last 10 years.
The transition story for the iPad has been more about the capability of the OS to handle powerful apps in a professional setting. The hardware has been there for a few years now, especially in the Pro models. However, the software lacked features that many pros need to make an iPad Pro their primary computing device. As much of a fan of the iPad Pro as I am, I get that.
I will be the first to admit that Apple struggled to find a new identity for their tablets for a few years as the device’s original positioning as a third device between laptops and phones was squeezed from both sides. Apple eventually got things on track though, and now we have iPadOS and a fast-evolving set of features specifically geared toward tablets.
While the Surface lineup of hardware (with the exception of the Go) is very impressive, I think that success has held Microsoft back on the OS side. Windows 8 and RT were their original transition plan to a newer UI and the original Surface devices were central to that vision. Unfortunately, while the hardware ultimately succeeded, the software was a complete and utter failure. There’s no other way to say it. Customers who had it complained and many actively avoided it and stuck with Windows 7 well past its intended lifespan.
That failure was made complete when Windows 10 rolled many of the ideas of 8 back to a completely desktop-centric UI with touch and pen merely bolted on. The whole experience seemed to scare Microsoft away from considering making any real, substantive changes to Windows for a long time. It’s been 8 years and Windows 10 is largely the same experience now that it was at release. It has never been easy or enjoyable to use without a keyboard and mouse.
Microsoft’s failure to evolve over the last 8 years will be magnified by the growing pains that experts believe are coming for Windows 10X. While it has seemed that they were ahead in some ways in providing a platform with touch and pen options that could still run legacy pro apps, Microsoft is just getting ready to start trying to move Windows forward again. And before it’s even out, we have more delays and re-calibration. Add to this the fact that Microsoft has clearly been focused on the development of cloud and services over Windows in recent years and there is just so much reason to doubt that they can pull this off. There is just too much failure to transition forward over the last 10 years to dismiss.
Forget the comparisons to Apple for a moment. Rather than make fun of Microsoft or poke at their failures on the heels of a big success for Apple, I am simply expressing disappointment and a lack of faith in them. As a Windows user, it will benefit me if they can effectively move the OS forward in a way that makes sense and doesn’t restrict the software that pros like me need to run. Also, real competition in the marketplace is a good thing and right now Apple just doesn’t have any in the tablet sphere. The Surface is terrible as a tablet and the only device in the lineup that competes in any way with the iPad Pro is the super expensive and limited Surface Pro X.
I want to believe, but I don’t
I want to believe that Microsoft will get its act together and start moving Windows forward. I would like to think that they value their OS enough to put the time and effort in to make it a great experience for touch and pen input, rather than staying focused on older paradigms. I would love to dismiss the past failures of Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows 10S and Windows for ARM and see that things will be different this time. However, if Microsoft fans and experts like Mary Jo Foley and Paul Thurriott aren’t excited about what’s going on at the moment and don’t seem convinced that it’s the right direction, then why would I be?
Hardware delays due to COVID-19 are understandable. I get that. However, as a Windows user, I will never give Microsoft a pass on how they have handled Windows 10 and moving forward. A current pandemic doesn’t excuse 8 years of inaction. It’s time to get serious again and get your act together. Come on, Microsoft. Pick up the ball, get out of your own way, and get going.