Windows 8: A bit like OS/2

Today in Technology Analogy Week…

In 1987, three years after the world’s perception of the possibilities of the PC had been changed by the Apple Mac and two years after the Mac’s cheap knockoff Microsoft Windows had been released, the world’s leading PC manufacturer released a new operating system.

OS/2 was the perfected pinnacle of many years’ development by serious software developers. Although IBM had initially worked on it with Microsoft, by the time of release it had become an IBM product alone. It was solid, sophisticated, fairly demanding of PC hardware of its time.

Given the resources, OS/2 worked well. But its compatibility with the popular software of the time—for MS-DOS or Windows—was always a bit awkward. Running such “legacy” software felt uncomfortable, as if you were ignoring the major part of the operating system and always on the verge of tripping up on the edges of its competent compatibility. But legacy software was almost all the software available: very few applications ever turned up in OS/2 native form.

The maddening problem of OS/2 was that it tried too hard to do everything. Its developers did all the right things, but it wasn’t different enough from the other popular operating systems of the time to be something you could choose for its strengths alone. It had to rely on compatibility with whatever everyone else was already using; but its compatibility with the technologically weaker market leader just wasn’t satisfying enough.

(You can see where this is going.)

In 2012, five years after iOS and its cheap knockoff Android, and two after the iPad, the world’s leading PC operating system manufacturer releases its new operating system…

Windows 8, like Windows Phone 7, is broadly a satisfying design—but only if you run nothing but native apps on it.

In the case of Windows 8, “native” means managed-code Modern UI software, a category so nebulously defined that nobody I know has yet explained to me the best method of developing for it. Meanwhile, Microsoft have effectively categorised every existing Windows application as a legacy app: they’re available only on the premium version of Windows (i.e. Windows 8 rather than Windows RT), and only in a subsidiary desktop mode.

Think about that for a moment. Windows 8 was released a few days ago. With it, Microsoft have designated every existing Windows application as a “legacy app”.

But Windows 8 isn’t a clean break. Like OS/2, it tries to do everything. It isn’t different enough from the other popular operating systems, iOS or Android, to be something you could choose for its strengths alone. It has to rely on compatibility with desktop Windows, and its compatibility isn’t very satisfying.

Next in Technology Analogy Week: How Nokia’s decisions during the last two years resemble British bands of the 80s and 90s whose managers have decided they must conquer America

5 thoughts on “Windows 8: A bit like OS/2

  1. Have you used the Office 2013 preview?

    It’s very good — in fact the quality of it gives me an almost awestruck feeling — “genuine software engineering has happened here!”

    But it’s still a Windows desktop app, and it still feels a bit out of place in Windows 8.

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