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Who Is Windows 11 For?

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Over the weekend, Windows 11 beta testers were hit by a bug that caused Explorer to stop working and broke the Start Menu and Task Bar. This is scarcely uncommon in a beta OS, but the details of what caused the failure have sparked discussion in the days since.

According to developer Daniel Aleksandersen, this specific failure was caused by a flaw in an ad for Microsoft Teams. The broken file wasn’t delivered via Windows Update but by a Windows component called IrisService. IrisService delivers things like an updated daily wallpaper, as well as the various tips and promotional data that show up on the lock screen.

As he writes:

[H]ow Microsoft could have let this happen? Yes, this is a beta build for early adopters. Yes, rough edges and productivity losses are expected.

However, that doesn’t answer why the Windows shell was so poorly architected in the first place. How come that it would stop responding just because of one failed cloud service? It’s not a crucial cloud service either, and the computer became useless because of a single JSON blob with an advertisement.

Ads in Windows are important to Microsoft. They’re nowhere to be found on the priority lists of Microsoft’s customers. We don’t want them there at all!

Microsoft has always pursued goals unaligned with those of its customer base; programs like Software Assurance were controversial when they launched precisely because they were seen as great deals for Microsoft and terrible deals for its customers. This is not a new phenomenon. But it feels like something has changed.

Aleksandersen has developed EdgeDeflector, an application that forces Windows to respect your default browser choices, even when opening search results from the Windows Start Menu, or accessing the internet via Cortana, the Microsoft Store, and other Windows 10 apps. Without it, Microsoft will forcibly open links in Edge. Microsoft’s willingness to ignore consumer preference in this area may seem a small thing, but it’s not the only small thing. It’s part of a larger pattern.

Over the past decade, Microsoft has shown less and less concern for the idea of consumer choice. Updates are mandatory. Forced reboots are mandatory. Telemetry is mandatory. Ads in the Start Menu are the new default, along with an endlessly annoying series of pop-ups that try to cajole, wheedle, and beg you to please use Microsoft products. It’s no longer possible to reorganize the Start Menu the way it once was. It’s harder to change the browser than it used to be. Windows 11 is supposed to be about security, but Microsoft won’t guarantee security updates for enthusiasts who run the OS on older hardware. It’s forcing the adoption of TPM in the name of security without addressing concerns related to data privacy weaknesses within the TPM 2.0 model.

There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Crucial’ Cloud Service

Aleksandersen writes that the cloud service in question isn’t crucial. I’d go further. There shouldn’t be a “crucial” cloud service in Windows in the first place.

When I say that, I’m speaking philosophically, not literally. Integrating OneDrive support or delivering dashboard updates requires such services. But there shouldn’t be a way for a cloud service to hamper the OS’s ability to access local files, run programs, or load a desktop. At no point should a cloud service be capable of preventing an OS boot, unless the system is booting from the cloud to begin with.

More and more, setting up a new Windows installation feels like an extended argument with Microsoft. In the old days, you installed the OS. Today, you must install the operating system, figure out how local account creation is being obfuscated in this release, bypass it, and then turn off every single “Microsoft would like to collect this data” feature in the OS.

The default answer to most of these ought to be “No.”

Once the OS has booted, it’s time to disable SmartScreen, SmartScreen for Edge, and Potentially Unwanted App blocking. I do, personally, because these interfere with some software I use for testing, but your mileage may vary here. If you need your PC not to reboot underneath you, Windows Update Blocker is a must-have. (Remember to update manually.) Apps like EdgeDeflector will allow you to use the browser of your choice in all instances, not the ones Microsoft feels like respecting.

To install Windows is to be reminded that there’s a laundry list of changes that must be made by default before the OS will function in the manner you prefer. Technologies like SmartScreen exist for a good reason, and I’m not claiming otherwise. But the net effect of all this is that setting up a new Windows installation feels like having a mildly annoying argument with a recalcitrant co-worker.

The reason it’s major news when a third-party developer discovers that a failed cloud service can bring down the Windows 11 desktop isn’t that cloud services are bad. It’s that Microsoft’s focus on advertising integration is not what customers want, especially when that integration is done so poorly it can prevent the desktop from booting if disrupted.

When Microsoft launched Windows 10, it made one thing very clear: Windows 10 was for everyone. Everyone running Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1 qualified for a free upgrade. Microsoft was so adamant that everyone had to have Windows 10 that it distributed an app it later admitted crossed the line into malware territory to trick people into installing its new OS.

But with Windows 11, at least thus far, all I can tell is who is the OS isn’t for. It’s not for people with computers that date back before 2018, with very limited exception. It’s not for anyone without a TPM module. It’s not for anyone who isn’t willing to accept the need to jump through even more hoops to configure one’s own PC. It’s not for people who value the local nature of a PC.

With Windows 10, the message was “We fixed Windows 8, built a new, low-latency 3D API, and created an OS platform to stretch across the smartphone and PC markets.” Windows 8/8.1 promised a revolutionary interface and mobile-inspired features compared with Windows 7. Windows 7 promised to fix everything wrong with Vista, Vista promised a boatload of new visual effects, security features, and a new display driver model compared with XP. Windows XP guaranteed much better stability than what Win9x had delivered, as well as features like multi-core support at the consumer level (Win9x is single-core). Microsoft didn’t always deliver its promises, and sometimes the promises it delivered sucked, but every previous version of the OS had a story to tell.

Right now, the only people who seem likely to benefit from Windows 11 in the near term are those who buy Alder Lake or own Lakefield devices and can benefit from its improved hybrid CPU support. We’re not saying the OS is bad, per se, but we’re not sure who it’s supposed to appeal to.

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