DESPITE its having been available for 18 months, three out of four PC owners have not bothered to upgrade their computers to the latest version of Microsoft’s operating system, Windows 10. More than 700m of the world’s 1.5bn or so computers continue to run on Windows 7, a piece of software three generations old. A further 300m users have stuck with other versions—half of them stubbornly (and rashly) clinging to 16-year-old Windows XP that Microsoft pensioned off three years ago. The business world has been even more recalcitrant. In a recent study by Softchoice, an info-tech consultancy, corporate computers were found to be running a whole gamut of legacy versions of Windows. Fewer than 1% of them had been upgraded to Windows 10.
That said, some 400m or so copies of Windows 10 are now thought to be in circulation. Normally, such a market penetration, after only 18 months, would be considered a huge success. It is what the warmly welcomed Windows 7 achieved during its first 18 months, and three times that chalked up by Windows XP. However, though XP started slowly in 2001, it went on to become Microsoft’s most successful operating system of all time, with over a billion copies eventually in use around the world.
Can Windows 10 do the same? Only if those Windows 7 holdouts have a change of heart. Many will eventually, as a generation of superannuated computers that were upgraded to Windows 7 or bought with it already loaded simply die of old age. Come January 2020, when Microsoft ends support for Windows 7—and thus offers no more bug fixes and security patches—a lot of users will inevitably make the leap. But Microsoft cannot afford to wait that long. It recently admitted it is unlikely to meet its goal of having Windows 10 on a billion computers by 2018.
Things were dandy during the first 12 months following Windows 10’s carefully orchestrated launch in July 2015, when upgrades were free for existing users of Windows 7 or 8.1. But once the free downloads ceased, in July 2016, the uptake of Windows 10 has depended almost exclusively on people buying new laptops, desktops and tablets that came with the latest operating system already installed.
According to Net Applications, a web analytics firm, Windows 10 accounts for a shade over 24% of all computer operating systems. Overall, the Windows family is reckoned to have a 92% stranglehold on the market, with Apple’s OS X, open source Linux and Google’s Chrome operating systems sharing the remaining 8%. A newcomer to computing, Chromebooks are now outselling MacBooks in the crucial education market, where long-term preferences tend to be established.
Some suggest that Windows 10’s share is actually bigger than 24%. Critics point to the way Net Applications derives its data from traffic recorded by a commercial websites that are supported by advertising, while other studies sample government sites with no advertising. That could make a difference. A common scam perpetrated by cybercrooks, for instance, is to use “bot-nets” to bombard web adverts with thousands of phony hits to collect payment. Bilking advertisers this way could distort the traffic figures, but whether significantly so is open to question.
Suffice it to say that, as far as the breakdown of operating systems is concerned, the trends all point in the same direction. Namely, that Windows 10’s share has inched up several percentage points since the free upgrade ended, while Windows 7’s has remained rock steady and still nearly twice as big. The task Microsoft faces is how to persuade all those Windows 7 fans to dump their friendly old operating system for what is widely perceived to be an overly complex program with a fairly steep learning curve.
There is no question that Windows 10 is an impressive piece of software, and quite the most secure operating system ever devised. But it is still very much a work in progress—even the program’s troubleshooter needs a troubleshooter. In its current form, Windows 10 demands serious expertise when it comes to knocking it into shape so ordinary users can work they way they prefer. It is also guilty of trampling far too much on people’s privacy, by keeping tabs of all their comings and goings. Given the tales of woe doing the rounds, a number of Windows 7 holdouts who have the choice could jump ship to the user-friendliness of a Macintosh or Chromebook—and no one would blame them for doing so.
For Microsoft, the obvious answer is to focus primarily on getting enterprises to upgrade. Rather than offer incentives, the company has resorted to spreading FUD (fear, uncertainly and doubt) among its corporate customers—as IBM did back in the 1970s whenever customers threatened to desert Big Blue for rival suppliers. Since the start of the year, Microsoft’s corporate users have been warned that, even with security updates, Windows 7 simply does not have the architecture to cope with today’s threats. The remedial work needed to recover from malware attacks can only drive up operating costs. The message to sceptical systems managers: postpone the inevitable upgrade at your peril.
The scaremongering does not stop there. Microsoft researchers cite two recent “zero-day” incidents (exploits that have never been seen before) by the Strontium hacker group—said to be affiliated with Russian intelligence—that broke into various American computer systems during the recent presidential campaign, including those of the Democratic National Committee, the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, and other political groups. Both exploits would have been stopped dead in their tracks by the heavy armour deployed by Windows 10 since its Anniversary Update (effectively Windows 10.1) last August, say the researchers.
It is impossible to retrofit older Windows versions with the sort of defense-in-depth that has been built into Windows 10. Nor would Microsoft do so even if it could. If anything, it is about to do the opposite. Windows 7 users will soon lose access to a stand-alone toolkit for mitigating zero-day exploits. The company’s justification for cutting them off is that the toolkit’s security features are now an integral part of Windows 10. The implications are clear: corporate users who want the extra protection had better start planning their upgrade path to Windows 10.
A word of warning, though: such upgrades do not necessarily go without a hitch. A Windows 10 tablet your correspondent relied upon for much of his mobile computing was broken irreparably when a recent update corrupted the display driver, rendering the touchscreen useless. With no way to navigate around the operating system and download a replacement driver, let alone roll the system back to a previous restore point or even reset the device to its original factory settings, the little Hewlett-Packard tablet was reduced to being an expensive paperweight.
The experience has not put him off entirely. A new Windows 10 tablet has now taken the ill-fated device’s place. But he has also dusted down his four-year-old Apple MacBook Pro and upgraded his Windows 7 desktop to the latest version of Linux Mint rather than Windows 10.
Meanwhile, he is reserving judgment about the extensive Windows 10 Creators Update (effectively Windows 10.2) due in April. Along with additional bells and whistles, it is said to be more secure than even the current version, while offering somewhat better privacy controls for users. But news that Microsoft has baked advertising into the operating system—pushing third-party apps as well as its own software and services—could be enough to make many a reluctant upgrader have second thoughts.
It used to be that only free software came with advertising; users paid a fee, if they chose to do so, to get the software free of advertising. Microsoft charges top dollar for Windows 10 ($120 or $200, depending on the edition) and now wants to bombard users with sales pitches to boot—without so much as by your leave, let alone the option to turn the nuisance off. Despite their idiosyncrasies, Macintosh and Linux have never looked so attractive.
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