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Windows 8? You’ll need support with that – the open source column

by Simon Brew

When a big store is selling a support package because you’ve ‘chosen’ Windows 8, then there’s surely a huge problem, argues Simon

There are several things that bind lots of countries in the world. A shared love of Breaking Bad. A desire to not see a sequel to the One Direction movie. And bricks and mortar electronics stores, with a special brand of salesperson.

In the UK, the goalposts have shifted over the years, as the number of big stores has thinned out, leaving just one giant. Said stores, we’re told, have moved away from straight commission-based selling, but it’s clear that their employees still have incentives to shift certain products. A friend of mine, however, recently decided that she was going to go into said large emporium – let’s call it the Buy More, from the gone-but-still-loved TV show Chuck. Into the Buy More they went, and laid out what they wanted: a laptop, for a set budget, and not a penny more.

This being the age of Windows 8, choice was quite restrictive. A Google Chromebook display looked a bit lonely. The Apple product area was busy, but it was the iPads, Pods and Phones that were being fondled. While when it came to laptops, to badly paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any operating system you like, as long as it’s Windows 8.

In truth, most of us have long since resigned ourselves to this, but the next move from the salesperson genuinely astonished my friend. “You’ll need to buy our support package”, they were informed, “because Windows 8 is so hard to use”. Whoa. Notwithstanding a potential argument of some honesty creeping into the sales patter, there’s something fundamentally wrong here. Why is it acceptable for a store to sell a product that it knows is too hard to use, and not provide any viable alternatives, unless they’re Apple and Google branded? Yes, yes: I know the answer. But is it any surprise that the high-street electronics store is a dying breed, when it’s still deploying such pitiful practices?

Sadly, the laptop, and now the tablet, have wrestled the mainstream operating status quo firmly back to how it was. The self-build desktop PC had at least offered people a choice of what OS they wanted on their machine, but the control manufacturers have over portable machines means that in the vast majority of cases we’re left accepting having to pay for an operating system, whether we want it or not.

But then that’s the idea. The eradication of choice. The making you feel you have a wide selection of products to choose from, simply because they come in different colours. Once, people would compare memory, storage space and processors. Now, it’s mainly the aesthetics.

It feels like a battle has been lost here. And while Microsoft may be experiencing problems breaking into any market that isn’t the desktop PC, too little has changed since Windows took its stranglehold on consumer computing. And when you go into primary schools and see computers piled up with Microsoft software, you can’t help but feel the next generation is going to make the same mistakes we did…

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    • Knut Svendsen

      And not to forget the corporate IT departments. Most workers use email, web browser; and occasionally Excel/Word/Powerpoint. All these apps have free alternatives that work well. However, MSFT ‘owns’ corporate purchasing and no one wants to take risk — can’t go wrong ‘buying IBM,’ as they used to say.

    • FeRD

      Another part of the problem (and a major threat to the Linux community) is the fact that this same approach — “the eradication of choice” — is taking hold of the open-source world, as big projects increasingly dominated by big corporations look at Microsoft and Apple and Google as their model for success, and try to emulate their approach.

      Right here at Linux User & Developer, a piece titled “A Linux Conspiracy Theory” ran back on 2013-03-10, where IgnorantGuru laid out a pretty convincing case for the Gnome Shell effort being driven by just such a desire to eradicate choice… among some very influential members of the project, anyway. In truth, he didn’t even have to make a case. It was sufficient to quote project leaders like William Jon McCann and Allan Day in their own words, as they opined about “brand presence” and “consistent visual appearance” while refusing requests or dissenting in discussions regarding user customization and the restoration of features, when it came to things they deemed “unnecessary” or “extremely detrimental to the Identity of the product [Gnome Shell]”. The KDE and Ubuntu projects came off no better.

      Sure, I suppose you could argue that this is a “beat ’em at their own game” attempt to compete with Microsoft and Apple for OS marketshare. But if Linux gains ground on the desktop by becoming just another restrictive OS driven by corporate concerns, is anybody really a winner there?

      Fortunately, McCann and Day and their ilk don’t represent the entire Gnome project, and they haven’t gotten their way in everything. The Gnome Shell Extensions website came to fruition in spite of their whining, thanks primarily to Jasper St. Pierre and a few other project members. And I’m sure their strong-arm tactics have turned off many of their colleagues who don’t see eye-to-eye. So the situation isn’t hopeless. But people — everyday endusers, everyone in the Linux community — need to know that these forces are present, and in fact occupy positions of power and influence, within the software projects and core developer communities that shape what constitutes a “Linux OS” install from any of the major distros. Hardware vendor lock-in is far from the greatest threat we’re facing.