Windows, but not as you know it

Bill Bennett delivers the positives and the negatives on the recently released Windows 10S operating system – and it could mean you are faced with a difficult decision.

Choosing Windows used to be simple. So simple, most of us didn’t even make a choice. We took the operating system that came with the computer. 
That’s changed. In May 2017 Microsoft introduced Windows 10S. As the name suggests, Windows 10S is a lot like Windows 10. It looks much the same and most of the time it works the same as Windows 10. 
But there are important differences. Moreover, you may face a difficult choice over what to do about it. 
Windows 10S is what technical people might call a ‘locked-down’ operating system. Depending on your point of view that is either a good thing or a bad thing. It can also be both. 
Locked-down means you, or the people who work for you, can’t install any software onto the computer. You are only able to buy and install software from the Windows app store. 
This approach is familiar to people who own iPhones and iPads. Apple’s iOS mobile operating system works much the same way. 
Microsoft and Apple say, with justification, this keeps life simple. It means devices are safer from malware and far easier to manage. There is less chance of software crashing. 
It also means the end of ‘crapware’. 
Crapware is the name given to the third-party software loaded onto new PCs by computer makers. It’s a form of advertising. 
Low-cost laptops are so inexpensive that PC makers struggle to make a dollar selling them. Margins are wafer thin. Therefore they can claw some money back charging software companies to install software. Often, the money they make this way is more than they get from selling the hardware. 
The problem is that no-one likes crapware. The programs are ugly and annoying. The worst ones bombard users with aggressive or threatening sales messages. 
It’s no accident security software companies are among the biggest crapware producers. One strategy is to send users messages that their computer is not protected from online nasties until they fork up. It’s the kind of marketing technique you might see in the Godfather movies. 
That’s not the only bad thing about crapware either. The continual pop-ups are a distraction if you are trying to work. Some crapware programs spy on users. They send streams of data back to HQ telling companies what the user is up to, which sites they visit, which apps they load and so on. 
Crapware has been guilty in the past of loading malware onto computers. At least two separate installations carried infection. 
Even when there’s no malware, crapware interferes with the normal running of a computer. That hurts your productivity. The programs run in the background looking for triggers to send their nagging advertising messages. This slows computers down. In effect, the computer is working hard on someone else’s behalf. 

Better than RT
Microsoft has tried before with a lock-down version of Windows, but it wasn’t a success. It included Windows RT on early versions of the company’s Surface tablet. You could only install apps from Microsoft’s app store. 
The problem with RT was that there were too few programs in the app store. People prefer Windows over other operating systems because there is a wide choice of apps to run on the software. Well over a million different Windows applications are available. Some have a narrow focus, and most niche applications run only on Windows. 

Microsoft is frog-marching the masses towards Windows 10S. That’s important. Having lots of users makes the Windows app store more attractive to software developers.

When Microsoft launched Windows RT there were only a few dozen apps in the store. Many of them were either not very good games or otherwise rubbish. 
Microsoft failed to make the store an enticing showcase of must-have software and that was a mistake. 
So what’s different this time? A few things. 
First, from now on most low-cost computers will come with Windows 10S loaded as standard. In other words, Microsoft is frog-marching the masses towards Windows 10S. That’s important. Having lots of users makes the Windows app store more attractive to software developers. They are more likely to create app store versions of their programs if they know that’s where their customers will be. 
Second, this time Microsoft has the computer makers onboard. When it put Windows RT on the Surface, no one other than Microsoft sold Windows RT hardware. 
Microsoft hardware is great, but it’s a tiny proportion of the market. The company doesn’t rank among the top device makers. At best it only accounts for a few percent of the total market, and the RT version of the Surface wasn’t even one percent of the total device market. 
Having the likes of HP, Dell and Lenovo selling Windows 10S devices changes the numbers. Soon it will be hard to buy a less expensive Windows device that doesn’t have the 10S version. In other words, it will dominate, and this will put even more pressure on software developers to sign up. 

A faster Windows
Apart from the lock-down feature, Microsoft stripped Windows 10S down for speed. It loads faster than Windows 10 and works faster. It also sips battery power, so you can get more out of low-cost laptops if they run Windows 10S instead of 10.
One reason developers don’t like app stores is that Microsoft, Apple and Google get to clip the ticket. They take 30 percent of the sales price. That may be a standard retail mark-up, but a lot of developers sell direct, so that means losing a lot of revenue. Also, app stores are not level playing fields. It can be hard for users to even find a specialist app, let alone figure out which of a range of choices is the best thing to buy. 
Given most computers will now sell with Windows 10S, you may wonder why this story starts by mentioning choice. That’s because you can pay Microsoft US$50 to unlock Windows 10S and turn it back into a straight version of Windows 10. 
That way you’re not restricted to the app store. You’ll have other freedoms to tinker at the edges with a non-locked down operating system, and you'll need to do this to run niche apps that haven't yet made it to the cloud. 

Bill Bennett is an Auckland-based business IT writer and commentator. Email 

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