By Harry McCracken | Friday, September 16, 2011 at 1:07 am
Who says you can’t teach an old operating system new tricks? For years, Windows was the world’s most annoying piece of software. It would blithely interrupt your work to tell you that there were unused icons on your desktop. Its search feature–even in the Professional version–inexplicably involved a puppy dog. It made paying customers jump through hoops to prove they hadn’t pirated the software, and sometimes accused them of stealing it anyhow. It rebooted itself to install updates when it felt like it, regardless of what you might be doing at the moment. I get irritated just thinking about it.
With Windows 7, Microsoft took a major step in the right direction: The best thing about the upgrade was that it stayed out of your face. And now Windows 8 promises to go even further, with a new interface, Metro, that’s remarkably tasteful and pleasant. If Microsoft delivers on Win 8’s potential when it ships it next year, you might forget you’re using Windows at all.
But I’m already nervous that PC markers will sabotage Microsoft’s good work by layering on junkware that makes the operating system slower, less reliable, and more aggravating.
I own two Lenovo ThinkPads. On the first one, I installed a virgin copy of Windows 7, exactly as Microsoft shipped it. It’s a delight. The second one–a newer, more powerful machine which I bought a couple of weeks ago–has a copy of Windows 7 as “enhanced” by Lenovo. From the moment I booted it up for the first time, its preinstalled apps started demanding more of my attention than an operating system should. (It questioned my decision when I said I didn’t want it to install a demo copy of Office; its copy of Internet Explorer warned me that the Lenovo Toolbar was likely to bog down the browser unless I disabled it; it confusingly asks me whether I want to run in “Energy Saver” or “Power Saver” mode.) I’m thinking I might be happiest blowing away Lenovo’s version of Windows 7 and installing an unmodified copy of the software as Microsoft intended it.
I don’t mean to bash Lenovo more than other big PC companies: Most of them continue to tinker with Windows in ways that hurt rather than help.
When PC manufacturers see Windows 8, with its overwhelming emphasis on simplicity, will they respect it or take the same meddlesome approach they do today? Does that fact that Metro apps fill the whole screen mean that other apps can’t pelt you with pop-ups? What happens to the balloon alerts–many of them useless–that traditionally appear in the System Tray? Can apps install themselves to run whenever you boot your PC without your express permission? Will there be Metro junkware? How will Metro security programs work? Will Microsoft’s efforts to make Windows 8 run well on machines with modest specs be sabotaged by third-party bloat?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions. I’m not sure if anyone will have answers until real Windows 8 PCs you can buy start appearing next year. But I’m hoping that Windows 8 simply doesn’t allow the degree of annoyification that previous versions of Windows did, and that PC makers show newfound restraint.