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  • Writer's pictureMatt Ferguson

Microsoft mistreats its captive audience

In the Before Times, the Windows operating system was sold on physical media: first, floppy diskettes, then CDs, then DVDs. When you purchased a physical copy of Windows (which until the mid-2000s was the only way to purchase it), you also purchased a license to use that copy of Windows. This license, while subject to Microsoft’s End User Licensing Agreement, was basically immutable; you bought a physical item and you owned a tangible good. In the years since Windows 7, Microsoft has labored tirelessly to turn Windows from a piece of software you bought every few years into a service that you rent. While Microsoft won’t say as much, the intention is to turn Windows into a subscription, like so many other products in the modern tech sphere.

Starting with Windows 11 in 2021, an active Internet connection and Microsoft Account are now mandatory in order to complete Windows setup on a new PC (or on an existing PC being upgraded from Windows 10). While there were methods to bypass this requirement in earlier builds of Windows 11, Microsoft has since focused on eliminating such workarounds. The long and short of it is: Microsoft is dedicated to killing the Local Account, whether you like it or not. Windows 11 Pro, it must be noted, is exempted from this mandate (for now) and offers users an “I don’t have Internet” option during setup. Windows 11 Home users are not so favorably considered. While there remain a couple of ways to fool Windows 11 Home into letting the end user create a Local Account, it’s impossible to know for how much longer those tricks will work.

The first way to fool Windows is to disable your Internet connection during setup, which is easy if your PC is plugged into an Ethernet cable (just pull the cable!), but becomes more of a chore if your PC connects strictly over WiFi; some users report pressing Alt+F4 when they reach the “Let’s get you connected” screen works to bypass this requirement, while others report it doesn’t. At this point, the use of the Command Prompt usually becomes necessary, requiring users to test various unsavory methods found on Google just to create a Local Account.

None of this is to proclaim that Windows users shouldn’t be given the option to use a Microsoft account if they want, but rather that an option should be provided at all. The current paradigm within Big Tech of automatically opting unwitting users into things they don’t want or understand is reflected in Microsoft’s efforts to pretend Local Accounts never existed.

And the strangest part of it all is that this behavior from Microsoft is so expected and mundane that the tech media has come to largely stop reporting on it. Rather than collectively hold Microsoft’s feet to the flame for their abuse of a largely captive audience, we’ve instead agreed to just suffer through it. Microsoft, being no stranger to antitrust lawsuits, has to imagine that they are walking on thin ice as they implement more anti-user and anti-competitive features that allow them to abuse their monopoly desktop operating system position. While Microsoft may hope to avoid further antitrust litigation, it has recently made itself a target by bidding to acquire video game giant Activision for an astounding $69 billion.

Now, Microsoft’s legal team might, with some success, argue that it no longer has a monopoly in the operating system space. Rivals Apple and Linux-based operating systems do exist, and are suitable replacements to Windows for a minority of current Windows users. Whether Microsoft acknowledges it or not, it has a largely captive audience in its Windows user-base. When one considers that Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Windows Server are staples of the vast majority of corporate and government institutions, it becomes clear that just dumping Windows for Apple’s macOS or a variant of Linux is not only unlikely, it’s absurd.

While Microsoft’s Windows hegemony has diminished from a lofty 92.02% of the total market in January 2011 to 74.14% in January 2023, it’s obvious that Windows is still king. Decades of backroom deals with other tech giants like Intel and vendor lock-in set Microsoft up for perpetual success, with little incentive to actually improve its products. While Linux might run the world, with the open source kernel powering operating systems that run on 96% of the world’s top one million web servers, Microsoft Windows is still an 800-pound gorilla in both end-user operating systems and corporate IT.

Where does this leave users who need Windows because their software doesn’t run on anything else? Stuck. It doesn’t matter if Windows is the best solution, or the most affordable, or the easiest to integrate with an existing tech stack; if your program doesn’t have a Linux or macOS equivalent, you have no recourse.

Happily, this forced marriage to Windows has begun to wane with the rise of cloud applications, which run in a web browser and are operating system agnostic. Adobe, once considered a Windows-only developer, now offers its Creative Cloud suite of applications which is available for both Windows and macOS (though, sadly, not Linux-based operating systems like Ubuntu).

Microsoft’s own cash-cow productivity suite, Microsoft 365, is also available in web app form, which extends its reach to both macOS and Linux users. Microsoft even now claims to embrace the Linux kernel, having implemented Windows Subsystem for Linux in Windows 10 back in 2016. Such trends would indicate that Microsoft wants to distance itself from its checkered past as a monopolist, an industry bully. Why, then, does Microsoft continue to do its determined best to make Windows more stifling, more restrictive, and less usable with every subsequent release?

The answer is perhaps not a surprising one: Microsoft wants an ecosystem. Apple, its largest rival in the desktop operating system space, has an ecosystem, and profits handsomely from tightly controlling the hardware, software, and services its users rely on. Having failed miserably in its foray into smartphones and being battered in the developer and server space by open source, Microsoft appears to be relenting and grudgingly embracing open source. Forgive my cynicism when I say “grudgingly”, as it stems from Microsoft’s public and private dismissal of open source software over the last three-and-a-half decades.

Under current CEO Satya Nadella’s leadership, the culture at Microsoft does seem to have changed for the better, relative to the ‘bad old days’ under Steve Ballmer’s and Bill Gates’ tutelage. Attitudes toward open source at Microsoft in its Azure, IoT, and services divisions may well have shifted positively, but Windows remains a puzzling contradiction to those pro-open source shifts. We must consider that the Windows NT kernel is a sprawling, complex mess that few Microsoft engineers even understand, and that rewriting the Windows kernel would be a truly Herculean undertaking. Having said that, nothing changes if nothing changes. The momentum Microsoft has accrued in its other divisions must be applied to its Windows product or the operating system is destined to wither, adding to its market share losses since the turn of the century.

Ultimately, we must consider Microsoft's new idea for its operating system now: to sell ad space. Microsoft's enduring obsession with injecting ads directly into Windows has miffed more than a few of its users, but it continues to toy with the idea, sometimes boldly, sometimes with more timidity. Application "stubs" for the likes of Instagram, Hulu, ClipChamp, and Disney+ litter the Start menu of a freshly-installed version of Windows 10 or Windows 11 now, thanks to undoubtedly lucrative partnerships that Microsoft has forged with these companies. These stubs are easily uninstalled and serve as more an annoyance than a privacy or security issue, since they aren't full applications, but they foretold a more ominous advertising future for Windows: Microsoft's current push to bake non-removable OneDrive and other first-party ads directly into the operating system itself. The sentiment toward these practices may be negative, but most people won't throw out their Windows PC because of it.

Perhaps the larger issue at play isn't what Microsoft, Apple, or Google are doing with their products, but rather advertising itself. Technology and advertising have become so interwoven that the only way to keep ads from eating reality itself is effective legislation and regulation. We'll discuss the state of digital advertising, its future, and its unintended consequences in a later post.

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