For me, Windows 8 is a tale of two cities: There’s an abundance of cool new features that I love, balanced out by an abundance of design changes that I absolutely hate. I accept all of that. Major changes bring major transitions. But as a card-carrying, freedom-loving geek, there’s one thing about Windows 8 I simply cannot accept, a “feature” that seems shiny and new and nice, but hides dark and dangerous possibilities that could devastate computing as we know it and leave us all shackled in Modern-styled chains. Even worse, that ticking time bomb beats as the heart of the new Live Tile interface, a malign tumor threatening to eventually rot the PC’s open core.
The Windows Store. The harbinger. Microsoft’s closed-off answer to Apple’s vaunted walled garden.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem with the usability of the Windows Store itself. No matter what type of device you’re using, the Windows Store is slick, polished and easy to browse, especially with the help of Windows 8’s new “type to search” feature. Its interface sits heads and shoulders above the Apple and Android alternatives.
No, my issue lies with the philosophical underpinnings beneath the attractive veneer.
The only way to get Windows 8 apps is through the Windows Store, some enterprise and developer exceptions aside. And the only way to get into the Windows Store is to go through Microsoft; developers need to pay for a license, submit their apps for approval from on high, and pray to get in.
The new walled garden approach holds a number of advantages for casual and neophyte computer users. Since Microsoft approves the content, Windows 8 apps are sure to be functional at a base level and free of malware. That security comes at the price of freedom, however.
The only way to get Windows 8 apps is to go through the Windows Store, and Microsoft’s app guidelines contain a laundry list of rules that tell developers what types of apps will be approved. Microsoft, like Apple, plans to actively screen the editorial content of apps to avoid offending delicate sensibilities.
A poisoned Apple
Just search Google for “Apple censors apps” and similar phrases to get a feel for what happens when an entire ecosystem’s content flows through a single source that considers itself a moral authority. Apple has censored iOS apps from satirical Pulitzer Prize winners, apps from religious groups, apps with political motivations, Google Voice, apps with Dropbox hooks, any app that overlaps the functionality provided by the core iOS experience, and a whole lot more.
Microsoft allows apps with competing functionality into the Windows Store, but it controls editorial content with an iron fist. Here are the content guidelines for Windows 8 apps:
- Your app must not contain adult content
- Your app must not contain content that advocates discrimination, hatred, or violence based on membership in a particular racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, religious, or other social group, or based on a person’s gender, age, or sexual orientation
- Your app must not contain content or functionality that encourages, facilitates or glamorizes illegal activity
- Your app must not contain or display content that a reasonable person would consider to be obscene
- Your app must not contain content that is defamatory, libelous or slanderous, or threatening
- Your app must not contain content that encourages, facilitates or glamorizes excessive or irresponsible use of alcohol or tobacco products, drugs or weapons
- Your app must not contain content that encourages, facilitates or glamorizes extreme or gratuitous violence, human rights violations, or the creation or use of weapons against a person or animal in the real world
- Your app must not contain excessive or gratuitous profanity
In other words, Windows 8 apps are so many bricks in the wall(ed garden), thought-controlled and scrubbed squeaky clean to Microsoft’s new Leave It To Beaver-esque standards.
A Dark Age ahead
Microsoft’s a private company, of course, and it can impose whichever arbitrary and heavy-handed rules it wants. However, a large part of Windows’ past success lied in the relatively open nature of the operating system. (Cool it, Linux lovers.) If you wanted to create a new piece of software, you just whipped it up and slapped it on the Internet — no costly developer license, jumping through censorship hoops, or 30 percent cuts of revenue to Microsoft required. There is a reason that Windows shined while Mac stuttered and iOS users strived to jailbreak their locked-down phones.
Microsoft is gutting its legacy, sacrificing its past on the altar of the tablet gods.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. When Microsoft asked Minecraft’s developer Notch to certify the game for Windows 8, he told them to “Stop trying to ruin the PC as an open platform.” He didn’t stop there. “I’d rather have Minecraft not run on Win 8 at all than to play along,” he tweeted.
Minecraft can, of course, still run on Windows 8 thanks to the Desktop mode, which plays classic-style Windows programs just fine. Windows RT tablets don’t have the same privilege; they’re stuck running those squeaky-clean, Microsoft-approved Windows 8 apps alone.
The focus is firmly on the new apps and interface, however. Windows 8 takes great pains to shove the Desktop and its legacy programs into a dusty, dark corner. The entire Modern-style Start screen revolves around glittery, transforming Live Tiles generated by Windows 8 apps, while the entire Desktop functions as a single app in Windows 8’s Switcher, no matter how many classic-style programs you have open. Microsoft doesn’t even allow users to boot to the Desktop directly from start up — you must go through the Modern Start screen.
Unless even users complain and Windows 8 fails miserably, I expect the non-enterprise versions of Windows 9 to be the final bricks in the walled garden, ditching the Desktop completely and leaving users with no choice but to look at the world through glasses colored whichever hue Microsoft decides to approve.
A happy medium
It doesn’t have to be like this. The newbie-friendly benefits provided by a walled garden are huge, and I can understand Microsoft wanting to hand-approve apps that sink deep hooks into Windows 8’s core.
I’m a big boy, though, and I want choice. Grand Theft Auto IV wouldn’t have been anywhere near as fun if Packie didn’t swear like a sailor and Niko laid down his automatic weapons and alcoholic beverages. Fortunately, there’s already an example Microsoft can follow that would dispel all my negativity and doubt: Android and Apple’s own OS X desktop operating system.
Both of those platforms restrict users to central, approved download sources out of the box, which provides casual users with the same level of security and ease-of-use currently offered by the Windows Store. More crucially, they also provide a way around that barrier for power users. Sideloading apps on Android is as simple as switching out a system setting, while disabling Gatekeeper on a Mac is just as straightforward.
Adding a sideloading option for everyone — not just devs and IT admins — would allow Microsoft to have its cake and eat it too. Casual users could stay safe and secure, while power users could bask in the open freedom and continue to use their computers as they see fit.
Sideloaded apps wouldn’t be subject to Microsoft’s 30-percent Windows Store fee, of course. That shouldn’t make too much of a dent in company revenues; as I said, Android allows sideloading, and I don’t hear Google complaining that hordes of users are snagging apps from third-party sources. However, allowing sideloading would let developers distribute Windows 8 apps that are too edgy, mature, political or religious for Microsoft’s squeaky-clean enforced tastes, while maintaining the open tradition the operating system is known for.
Will Microsoft grant this boon after already tossing out the Start button, the desktop and the company’s reluctance to make its own hardware, or will it continue down the ham-fisted (yet profitable) path blazed by the dictators at Apple? That remains to be seen. But if the company doesn’t change its ways, the Windows Store will be the death — not the evolution — of computing as we know it.
Keep on keeping on with that Steam for Linux endeavor, Valve. You might just be sowing the seeds of rebirth that keeps hope alive after a computing apocalypse.