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8 Reasons Why Even Microsoft Agrees the Windows Desktop is a Nightmare

surface-in-microsoft-store

Let’s be honest: The Windows desktop is a mess. Sure, it’s extremely powerful and has a huge software library, but it’s not a good experience for average people. It’s not even a good experience for geeks, although we tolerate it.

Even Microsoft agrees about this. Microsoft’s Surface tablets with Windows RT don’t support any third-party desktop apps. They consider this a feature — users can’t install malware and other desktop junk, so the system will always be speedy and secure.

Malware is Still Common

Malware may not affect geeks, but it certainly continues to affect average people. Securing Windows, keeping it secure, and avoiding unsafe programs is a complex process. There are over 50 different file extensions that can contain harmful code to keep track of.

It’s easy to have theoretical discussions about how malware could infect Mac computers, Android devices, and other systems. But Mac malware is extremely rare, and has  generally been caused by a problem with the terrible Java plug-in. Macs are configured to only run executables from identified developers by default, whereas Windows will run everything. Android malware is talked about a lot, but Android malware is rare in the real world and is generally confined to users who disable security protections and install pirated apps. Google has also taken action, rolling out built-in antivirus-like app checking to all Android devices, even old ones running Android 2.3, via Play Services.

Whatever the reason, Windows malware is still common, while malware for other systems isn’t. We all know it — anyone who does tech support for average users has dealt with infected Windows computers. Even users who can avoid malware are stuck dealing with complex and nagging antivirus programs, especially since it’s now so difficult to trust Microsoft’s antivirus products.

Manufacturer-Installed Bloatware is Terrible

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Sit down with a new Mac, Chromebook, iPad, Android tablet, Linux laptop, or even a Surface running Windows RT and you can enjoy using your new device. The system is a clean slate for you to start exploring and installing your new software.

Sit down with a new Windows PC and the system is a mess. Rather than be delighted, you’re stuck reinstalling Windows and then installing the necessary drivers, or you’re forced to start uninstalling useless bloatware programs one-by-one. After uninstalling the useless programs, you may end up with a system tray full of icons for ten different hardware utilities anyway. The first experience of using a new Windows PC is frustration, not delight.

Yes, bloatware is still a problem on Windows 8 PCs. Manufacturers can customize the Refresh image, preventing bloatware from easily being removed.

Finding a Desktop Program is Dangerous

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Want to install a Windows desktop program? Well, you’ll have to head to your web browser and start searching. It’s up to you, the user, to know which programs are safe and which are dangerous. Even if you find a website for a reputable program, the advertisements on that page will often try to trick you into downloading fake installers full of adware.

While it’s great to have the ability to leave the app store and get software that the platform’s owner hasn’t approved — as on Android — this is no excuse for not providing a good, secure software installation experience for typical users installing typical programs.

Even Reputable Desktop Programs Try to Install Junk

Even if you do find an entirely reputable program, you’ll have to keep your eyes open while installing it. It will likely try to install adware, add browse toolbars, change your default search engine, or change your web browser’s home page.

Even Microsoft’s own programs do this — when you install Skype for Windows desktop, it will attempt to modify your browser settings to use Bing, even if you’ve specially chosen another search engine and home page. With Microsoft setting such an example, it’s no surprise so many other software developers have followed suit.

Geeks know how to avoid this stuff, but there’s a reason program installers continue to do this. It works and tricks many users, who end up with junk installed and settings changed.

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The Update Process is Confusing

On iOS, Android, and Windows RT, software updates come from a single place — the app store. On Linux, software updates come from the package manager. On Mac OS X, typical users’ software updates likely come from the Mac App Store.

On the Windows desktop, software updates come from… well, every program has to create its own update mechanism. Users have to keep track of all these updaters and make sure their software is up-to-date. Most programs now have their act together and automatically update by default, but users who have old versions of Flash and Adobe Reader installed are vulnerable until they realize their software isn’t automatically updating. Even if every program updates properly, the sheer mess of updaters is clunky, slow, and confusing in comparison to a centralized update process.

Browser Plugins Open Security Holes

It’s no surprise that other modern platforms like iOS, Android, Chrome OS, Windows RT, and Windows Phone don’t allow traditional browser plugins, or only allow Flash and build it into the system. Browser plugins provide a wealth of different ways for malicious web pages to exploit the browser and open the system to attack. Browser plugins are one of the most popular attack vectors because of how many users have out-of-date plugins and how many plugins, especially Java, seem to be designed without taking security seriously.

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Oracle’s Java plugin even tries to install the terrible Ask toolbar when installing security updates. That’s right — the security update process is also used to cram additional adware into users’ machines so unscrupulous companies like Oracle can make a quick buck. It’s no wonder that most Windows PCs have an out-of-date, vulnerable version of Java installed.

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Battery Life is Terrible

Windows PCs have bad battery life compared to Macs, IOS devices, and Android tablets, all of which Windows now competes with. Even Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 2 has bad battery life. Apple’s 11-inch MacBook Air, which has very similar hardware to the Surface Pro 2, offers double its battery life when web browsing. Microsoft has been fond of blaming third-party hardware manufacturers for their poorly optimized drivers in the past, but there’s no longer any room to hide. The problem is clearly Windows.

Why is this? No one really knows for sure. Perhaps Microsoft has kept on piling Windows component on top of Windows component and many older Windows components were never properly optimized.

Windows Users Become Stuck on Old Windows Versions

Apple’s new OS X 10.9 Mavericks upgrade is completely free to all Mac users and supports Macs going back to 2007. Apple has also announced their intention that all new releases of Mac OS X will be free.

In 2007, Microsoft had just shipped Windows Vista. Macs from the Windows Vista era are being upgraded to the latest version of the Mac operating system for free, while Windows PCs from the same era are probably still using Windows Vista.

There’s no easy upgrade path for these people. They’re stuck using Windows Vista and maybe even the outdated Internet Explorer 9 if they haven’t installed a third-party web browser. Microsoft’s upgrade path is for these people to pay $120 for a full copy of Windows 8.1 and go through a complicated process that’s actaully a clean install.

Even users of Windows 8 devices will probably have to pay money to upgrade to Windows 9, while updates for other operating systems are completely free.

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If you’re a PC geek, a PC gamer, or someone who just requires specialized software that only runs on Windows, you probably use the Windows desktop and don’t want to switch. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean the Windows desktop is actually a good experience. Much of the burden falls on average users, who have to struggle with malware, bloatware, adware bundled in installers, complex software installation processes, and out-of-date software. In return, all they get is the ability to use a web browser and some basic Office apps that they could use on almost any other platform without all the hassle.

Microsoft would agree with this, touting Windows RT and their new “Windows 8-style” app platform as the solution. Why else would Microsoft, a “devices and services” company, position the Surface — a device without traditional Windows desktop programs — as their mass-market device recommended for average people?

This isn’t necessarily an endorsement of Windows RT. If you’re tech support for your family members and it comes time for them to upgrade, you may want to get them off the Windows desktop and tell them to get a Mac or something else that’s simple. Better yet, if they get a Mac, you can tell them to visit the Apple Store for help instead of calling you. That’s another thing Windows PCs don’t offer — good manufacturer support.

Image Credit: Blanca Stella Mejia on Flickr, Collin Andserson on Flickr, Luca Conti on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 11/3/13

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