Windows 11: Meet the new OS, same as the old OS (or close enough)

From point release to pointless release

Column A new version of Windows was once a big deal. Upgrading was expensive for everyone, with warehouses-worth of physical media being pushed into retail channels to displace the old. It couldn't happen very often, so version numbers became signifiers of great importance.

That hasn't been true for more than a decade. What has been true for years is that we no longer need "new" Windows. Windows 10 is so much better than its antecedents that it has stopped being a problem.

Not being a problem is the highest accolade an operating system should aim for. An OS exists to let other things do their jobs reliably, swiftly and painlessly. Even the bits the user has to frob with – sound, video, filing systems, network config – should be the minimal necessary. And compared to Windows 7 and 8, let alone Vista, Windows 10 has won hearts – well, grudging acceptance – for not breaking.

As a result, the rules for updates now are: "Don't tell me you're updating" and "Don't break anything when you're done."

As users, we're long past the point where basic OS functionality needed improving. Driver architectures are stable and mature. Memory management, file systems, connectivity, all sorted. So what in the name of Bill Gates' divorce attorney's second yacht justifies a new number for Windows?

While the platonic computer science OS is an invisible facilitator, to Microsoft's marketing department it is a Channel to Encourage Users to Enjoy New Experiences

Almost nothing. A grab-bag of randomness – taskbar tweaks, a faint murmur of new window management functions, and some UI mucking about – including one new feature, curved corners, that was forcibly hammered by Steve Jobs into the original Macintosh 40 years ago. This is surely some sort of record for sulky idea appropriation?

In the pre-Windows 10 era, this kind of bland bundle of meh would come from some unknown company headquartered in their moms' basements in Stinking Creek, Wyoming. It would sell for $25 as a utility package for six months before ending up on a CD-ROM cover disk. Yet here it is, as a flagship upgrade from Seattle. This in an operating system that lately managed to absorb an entire Linux subsystem without needing to burp out even a tiny version uptick.

For developers, of course, the OS looks very different. Windows 10 has sprouted new APIs and services like a post-monsoon forest coming into bloom. Since its launch in 2015, it has had to keep pace with Microsoft's ever-evolving Azure strategy, or, if you prefer, fads and fashions. Most Windows users, of course, aren't developers. They don't need to know this stuff, in fact they bloody well shouldn't. Imagine living in a world where you got pestered at parties to explain WSL and whether it was worth upgrading to get it?


So if feature changes and seismic evolution aren't enough to make a 10 into an 11, what's going on? Marketing. Of course it's marketing. Wholly marketing and nothing but marketing. While the platonic computer science OS is an invisible facilitator, to Microsoft's marketing department it is a Channel to Encourage Users to Enjoy New Experiences.

You'll have spotted that Windows 10 loves doing that, with plenty of unexpected surprises after each incremental upgrade, like Bing search options and the task bar growing a news feed. You'll have hated those, as everyone in the sanity community does, because they get in the way. They became a problem, the polar opposite to how an OS should behave.

But like spam, begging letters and political Facebook ads, you aren't the target audience. The few per cent of users who click are worth the small cost of deployment, and the anguish and frustration of the rest of us don't matter - because we can't escape. Windows remains the capitalist world's favourite OS, so if you're an enterprise dev you will salute, soldier.

Hence Windows 11, which will be pushed as a must-have, because for consumers there is New and for the enterprise - oh look, here's an EOL for Windows 10 after which hackers will get you.

The fact that the difference between 10 and 11 is going to be functionally less than what's happened under the bonnet every year of Windows 10's life is irrelevant.

There's not much we can do, except decline the hype. Windows 11 signals the end of that brief period of sanity in Microsoft where it acknowledged that software these days isn't upgraded by shipping tonnes of magnetic domains or optical pits once every three years. The fruits of that are too sweet to pass up, even if the flavour's entirely artificial these days.

Get angry if you must at the rolling back of reality. Utilise weary disdain by all means, it helps. And if you must look on the bright side, at least we're rid of Skype. ®

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