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

End of the laptop line

I realised not long ago that, for my purposes, laptop PCs have stopped improving.

It didn’t happen recently: it just took me a long time to notice.  In fact I reckon it happened about five years ago.

My decline and theirs

Sony Vaio PCG-R600MX (2002)The first laptop I bought with my own money was a Vaio R600MX in 2002. It must have cost about £1400. A lovely hardware design, it had a beautiful case and keyboard and a clear 12.1″ screen, but it was noisy, even for the time it was slow, battery life wasn’t good, and the screen was only 1024×768.

Still, it was easy to carry, and that’s the first thing I looked for in a laptop because I only used it when on the move. I stuck with similar criteria for years after that, up to a Vaio Z in 2010.

But the way I work has changed during the last five years or so: I lost the desk and desktop PC I had at home when the space was upgraded to a chest of drawers; I do less number-crunching than I used to, and rely less on the power of a desktop machine. I can “get away with” using a laptop more.

I now have most of my data online, so I no longer have any need to carry the same computer between work and home.  And having a family I travel less.  I haven’t left Europe since 2002, meaning that first Vaio is still the only computer I’ve ever tried to use on a plane.

So I now work on a laptop far more than I used to, but it doesn’t actually have to move about as much.

During the same five years, something bad has happened to laptops.

Screens have got shorter and shorter and gone all shiny. Keyboards have turned flat and featureless. The hardware has got faster, but quite a bit of that is down to solid-state drives—which you can retrofit in any machine. For the former me, an 11″ MacBook Air would have seemed like the ideal machine: to the current me, it starts to look a bit fiddly.

When all this eventually dawned on me, I made a couple of trips to the Queensway computer market and to eBay and discovered that a Thinkpad T60, made in 2007, now costs about £150.

Quadratisch, praktisch, gut

There are machines that do individual things better than the T60, but nothing else I’ve found yet is so consistently nice to use.

Thinkpad T60The 14″ non-widescreen high resolution display! All those lines of text!  Funny to think this was once commonplace.

A proper bumpy keyboard!  And a good one, if not quite your Sun Type-5.

Of course it’s not fast as such, but it was certainly fast “only” five years ago, and it’s good enough, especially with another 70 quid spent on an SSD, to feel broadly contemporary rather than totally antique.

(Software no longer seems to bloat as rapidly as it used to, either because I’ve been fixed in the same tasks and development environments for too long, or because the increasing proliferation of lower-level general-purpose hardware and the limitations of Moore’s law have moderated other developers’ ambitions.)

Very solidly built; easy to find spare parts and replacement batteries; battery life isn’t bad. The styling is a bit divisive, but it appeals to me.

Finally, the T60 was the last Thinkpad that actually said IBM on it. I’m a sucker for that.

And a hundred and fifty quid!  Just writing it makes me want to go and buy another… although even at that price, I can’t currently afford to. Even so, it puts dramatically into perspective the amount I’ve spent on new hardware over the years.

Is this just because I’m becoming obsolete along with the computers I use? Is it an affectation that I’ll forget all about next time something really shiny turns up? Or is it a symptom of the PC age running out of appealing novelties?