This post continues a previous discussion, with the benefit of another year’s insights and experiences.
Why We Are in This Situation:
The Microsoft Monopoly
In a post dated March 18, 2016, after an extensive review of relevant matters (e.g., Microsoft’s corporate culture and priorities), I reached essentially these big-picture conclusions, regarding Microsoft’s efforts to force Windows 7 users to switch to Windows 10:
Microsoft offered Windows 10 as a free upgrade, and pushed users of Windows 7 and 8 to accept it, because Microsoft considered Windows 10 important for the company’s future: (1) Windows 10 was crucial in Microsoft’s bid to control the Internet of Things [IoT], with billions of devices running Windows 10 IoT; (2) Microsoft wanted to sell a very stable Windows 10 to businesses, and planned to use millions of Windows 7 and 8 users as guinea pigs who would be force-fed the Windows 10 operating system and its potentially flawed updates, so as to catch bugs before they reached corporate users; and (3) Microsoft designed Windows 10 to produce revenues by obtaining detailed personal information on users and their computing activities.
Decisions incorporated into Windows 8 and 10 suggested that Microsoft increasingly took desktop and laptop computing for granted. The company’s attempts to shoehorn a single operating system into many different devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets) made it more difficult for PC users to get work done. At the same time, new Intel CPUs were designed not to work with Windows 7. Microsoft’s high-pressure efforts to drive users out of Windows 7 and into Windows 10 backfired in some cases, as users considered alternatives that might yield a long-term solution based on a well-organized and trustworthy operating system. Linux, in particular, was able to run on those new Intel CPUs; was able to run many Windows programs or functional equivalents; and also offered the ability to run the entire Windows (7, 8, or 10) operating system inside a virtual machine — all without the prospect of Microsoft’s plans to sell its software on a more expensive subscription basis.
It was easy to feel, at that point, that the public was not served by the government’s failure to achieve the breakup of Microsoft in its antitrust suit. Microsoft had engaged in many behaviors harmful to competition and, ultimately, to consumers. The New York Times (Markoff, 2005) conveyed the view that Microsoft was “paying for peace” without “changing its behavior in any significant way.” Fortune (Tetzeli & Kirkpatrick, 1998) reported that, even though Microsoft was very popular at the time, a plurality of survey respondents considered Microsoft a monopoly, and “a very large majority — fully 80% — also believed that the Justice Department ought to enforce antitrust laws.”
Kirkwood (2013) points out that consumer protection is the undeniable priority of antitrust law. The Times article observed that, in 2000, the federal judge had, in fact, “ordered that Microsoft be broken into two companies to curb its monopolistic practices” but that, “the next year, the new Bush administration decided not to seek a breakup and the Justice Department settled in 2002.” As a consequence, according to The Baltimore Sun (Hawker & Lande, 2011). “Consumers today have no more choice about which operating system will come installed on their PC” than in 1998: “Windows’ market share remains well above 80 percent.”
That was the Microsoft of Bill Gates and of Steve Ballmer, his immediate successor. For many years, it has given the world the inefficiency of monopoly and its increasing burden on the American economy. The Microsoft-Bush example supports the argument of Forbes (Machado, 2015): the size of the monopolistic corporation leads to “a promiscuous interaction between regulators and industry, a pseudo-symbiosis that damages the real development of certain sectors . . . [and] holds countries hostage to inefficiency in these sectors.” Schmitz (2016), a senior research economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, describes monopolies’ internal turf wars in terms that match what Microsoft observers said about that company’s own infighting:
Close study reveals that monopolies are in fact composed of many subgroups, and it is the interplay among these groups that leads to low productivity and the elimination of substitutes. . . . [C]ompetition among subgroups within the monopoly . . . often threatens to tear the monopoly apart. To survive, the subgroups agree to find ways to limit internal competition.
Stanford economist Bresnahan (2002, p. 17) explores the costs that Microsoft’s monopoly imposed on consumers at the time — in, for example, “compelling Intel to abandon a line of innovative software,” paying major Internet service providers (e.g., AOL) to choose Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) browser and reject Netscape’s Navigator, and making it difficult for consumers to use anything other than IE. Bresnahan concludes that Microsoft’s behavior had far-reaching deleterious effects upon consumer choice for years to come. Gilbert and Katz (2001, p. 39) concur:
[T]here is significant evidence that Microsoft took actions for the explicit purpose of harming competition. . . . [C]onsumers were likely harmed because much of Microsoft’s challenged conduct reduced the probability that Netscape/Java would emerge as a platform competitor.
Fisher and Rubinfeld (2001, pp. 60-61) expand upon that: “[W]e believe Microsoft’s conduct would not have been undertaken (because it was not otherwise profitable), but for the exclusion of competitors and the opportunity to recoup by maintaining and increasing monopoly power in its operating system.” Fisher and Rubinfeld quote from the judge’s opinion:
Microsoft foreclosed an opportunity for OEMs to make Windows PC systems less confusing and more user-friendly . . . . [and] deprived consumers of software innovation that they very well may have found valuable . . . . Microsoft has demonstrated that it will use its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft’s core products.
Without denying those historical effects, Slate (Yglesias, 2013) suggests that, despite the government’s failure to break up Microsoft, at least the litigation did make it impossible for the company to dominate Internet access through its IE browser and thereby prevent the rise of Google. But Hawker and Lande (2011) observe that, in the monopoly-friendly environment following the Microsoft case, an absence of aggressive antitrust enforcement may now facilitate efforts by Google to protect and extend its own monopoly in Internet search.
The point of these remarks on monopoly is that, if the government had persisted and succeeded in its efforts to break up Microsoft, that company would probably not have been in a position to force the majority of the world’s computer users to switch to Windows 10. In that case — to cite the particular event prompting me to return to this subject — I would have been able to keep using Windows 7 on Intel’s latest “Kaby Lake” line of CPUs. Instead, at this writing, it appears that Microsoft has used its power to give me no realistic option, other than Windows 10, if I wish to use that new hardware.
The Linux Alternative
So, as I say, in March 2016 I wrote that post, looking into the Microsoft mentality and the company’s reasons for pushing Windows 10 so aggressively. For my own computing, the conclusion was that, if I wanted to continue to use Windows 7, I would have to view Microsoft as, in effect, an adversary that sought to make it harder for me to get work done, in order to serve its own purposes.
That view led, in turn, to the realization that, for desktop users like me, it might make sense to accept that the Windows 7 era was ending and that, at some point, I might have to switch to a non-Windows operating system. As elaborated in a number of posts in this blog, in mid-2016 I spent several months working in that direction, seeking to make Linux my new operating system. Along the way, I developed posts listing my favorite Windows programs, investigating the likely Linux alternatives to those programs, and describing some of my experiences in using those Linux alternatives.
Well. I can tell you that those explorations did not work out as I hoped or assumed they would. It had been more than five years since January 2011, when I had abandoned Ubuntu for the then-newish Windows 7, for the specific reason that I needed my software to work: I needed to get things done. And to a surprising extent, that was still the case. In 2016 as in 2011, some of my most useful and important programs did not have Linux versions.
It appeared that, often, that was simply because Microsoft’s operating system monopoly made it unprofitable for developers to produce separate Linux versions of their software. No doubt Microsoft was also capable of paying or coercing other companies not to support Linux, if necessary. But without a government capable of insuring a fair playing field, the bottom line was that, for much of the software I needed, Windows was still the only game in town.
That said, it did surprise me that Linux still did not have its act together. There had been many improvements, during the intervening five years, in the Linux flavors I tested. There was also little of the attitude that people who don’t know Linux shouldn’t be using it; there was much more user friendliness.
But Microsoft’s dominance was not the only problem. There was still a difference in attitude. Microsoft had become rich and powerful because it played to the market, and the Linux world just didn’t. Again, there seemed to be many able and hard-working Linux people who were laboring to make their beloved operating system practical and accessible. But to a remarkable extent, Linux was still about people going in a hundred different directions. It was still a hobbyist’s realm, a place for playing with computer possibilities but not for commitment to a competitive set of practical solutions for non-hobbyists.
Based on those months of trying different ways to get things done, I came to a conclusion. As detailed in another post, the dream of Linux dominance on the desktop was dead. Even during the upheaval wrought by Microsoft’s force-feeding of Windows 10, Linux market share barely budged. Attempts to develop a Linux interface that would be friendly to the uninformed computer user were doomed. Uninformed desktop and laptop users already had well-funded Microsoft and Apple operating systems to meet their needs.
In other words, people who wanted Linux to succeed on the desktop seemed to lack a realistic target market. In my view, as suggested in that other post, the only hope for Linux was to become focused on the needs of Windows power users — of people who had a fair grasp of desktop computing and were not afraid of the command line. Success among those users could someday translate into success among others influenced by such users.
That post has had some readers. Unfortunately, I am not yet aware of any significant focus, or change in focus, by which Linux proponents could hope to make real inroads in any appreciable portion of the desktop and laptop operating system market. There does not appear to be any serious reason to believe that Linux will be significantly more popular on the desktop ten years from now than it was ten years ago.
This state of affairs seems to call for some reflection on the role of monopolies, or at least of major corporations. There is the hypothetical world in which there would be no monopolies, and perhaps in that world software-derived income and wealth would reflect the developer’s positive contribution to society. But in our world, empires are forever being created and then replaced by other empires. People look for leadership, and align their own efforts and perspectives with whatever the leader is doing.
Open-source office suites, notably LibreOffice and OpenOffice, are often cited as strengths making Linux competitive with Windows. And yet those packages are exceptions that prove the rule: they are solid solutions produced by corporations. I would guess that a player like Google could develop Linux as a serious alternative to Windows on the desktop. There are no signs that it will happen otherwise.
To Transition or Not to Transition?
So I found myself facing the question of whether to stay with Windows 7 or, instead, to switch to Windows 10. It was time to review what that choice might mean.
I had seen many webpages and blog posts expressing the view that Windows 10 was great, and many others helping the apparently numerous users who decided to abandon Win10 and revert to an older version of Windows. So far, I had not found it to be great for my purposes; but if I decided to switch to it, I hoped I would be able to stick it out, rather than keep flopping back and forth.
As mentioned above, I faced this question because I was thinking about buying new hardware — specifically involving a Kaby Lake processor — that was supposedly incompatible with Windows 7. So, for me, it wasn’t so much a matter of what people thought was great or terrible about Windows 10; it was more a question of whether I had any alternative.
It seemed I might. Reviews by PC Gamer, Beebom, and CNET emphasized what others (e.g., PC World) left relatively understated — namely, that the Kaby Lake line of CPUs (in CNET’s words) “aren’t as big an upgrade as you’d expect . . . a little bit faster and a little bit more power-efficient” than the previous “Skylake” generation of Intel CPUs. (Note that AMD’s latest Zen CPUs are also supported for Windows 10 only.) CNET suggested the main benefit from the arrival of the seventh-generation Kaby Lake CPUs would be to generate some price-cutting among sixth-generation Skylakes. So one pair of options not requiring Windows 10 would be to keep using existing hardware, or to upgrade to a Skylake CPU. As Intel explained, this would mean a CPU with a number like Core i7-6920HQ, where the 6 indicates sixth-generation (as distinct from e.g., the seventh-generation i7-7Y75 or i7-7500U).
In August 2016, Microsoft stated that it would support Skylake through the end of the extended support periods for Windows 7 (i.e., January 14, 2020) and Windows 8.1 (i.e., January 10, 2023). According to PC World (Chacos, 2015), Microsoft’s “mainstream” support period, ending in January 2015 for Windows 7, was the period during which the company would continue to issue new features or tweaks; and Microsoft’s “extended” support period is the period during which the operating system will receive only security-related updates.
After the end of extended support, Digital Trends (Pot, 2016) said the system would keep working, but personal information would be vulnerable to “zero-day exploits.” Elsewhere, Digital Trends (Stobing, 2015) explained that a “zero-day” attack is so called because zero is the number of days for which the vulnerability has been known. In other words, it is brand-new and is being used by the bad guys before the antivirus people and other good guys have a chance to do anything about it. Stobing said that, as one would expect, standard precautions could not offer 100% security, but would at least reduce the risk from zero-day exploits. Those precautions include using Windows Updates, keeping antivirus security current, keeping the router’s firmware updated, avoiding iffy downloads and links, and keeping up with sources of information on security threats. It was not clear to what extent antivirus companies would continue to support Windows 7 in coming years, but in any case various sources (e.g., a Symantec discussion) seemed to agree that antivirus was no substitute for Windows Updates.
Instead of installing Windows 7 on a computer with a Skylake or older CPU, there was also the option of trying to install Windows 7 on a Kaby Lake or newer CPU. It appeared this could be done — there was evidently no absolute hardware prohibition against it — and some users reported no problems, while others had varying degrees of difficulty. Given the similarity of Skylake and Kaby Lake CPUs, PC Games (James, 2016) contended that the problems should be relatively minor for Intel CPUs, but might be more substantial on AMD Zen chips.
Another option was to install Windows 10, but configure it to resemble Windows 7 (or Windows XP) as much as possible. This approach could require the user to accept the loss of (or attempt to resurrect) certain Windows 7 features no longer offered in Windows 10, and also to cope with the possibility that Windows 10 would not run a needed Windows 7 program. An effort to redesign Windows 10 as Windows 7 might include the Classic Shell enhancement, to restore a more familiar Start menu; (1 2 3) sources suggested other modifications; and there would also be any number of other tweaks that might help to alleviate at least some of the terrible aspects of Windows 10.
There was also the virtual machine (VM) option. Especially on more powerful hardware, it might be possible to obtain adequate performance by running Windows 7 in a VM, either on Windows 10 or on Linux (which, like Win10, would apparently have no problem with Kaby Lake and newer hardware). Such a VM could be used at least to run any desired Windows 7 programs that did not run in Windows 10. As a point of comparison, in my years of running Windows XP in a VM on Ubuntu, I had found that XP was actually more stable in the VM than when installed natively. Performance had been acceptable though not great, even on the relatively slow hardware of 2008-2010. Security updates might not be necessary in a Windows 7 VM, especially if its software did not go online. That is, the user could disable the VM’s network connection, and do web browsing in the underlying (Windows 10 or Linux) operating system. Another post describes my previous project of setting up a VirtualBox VM in Linux Mint.
Against these options, there was also the option of staying more or less where I was — just using my existing hardware for a while longer, or maybe upgrading to an older but still newish generation of Intel CPU. There was always the possibility of some new development that would change everything: a new Windows-friendly Linux, or a different kind of hardware, or a change in my own computing needs.