Since when were software upgrades worth partying about, asks Jason Walsh.
So we hold parties for operating system releases now?
The first time I heard about Windows 7 install parties I was in a radio studio with a Microsoft employee; a nice, intelligent and interesting woman. She suggested on-air that the parties might be fun. I burst out laughing.
I can imagine nothing more cringe-inducing than an Anne Summers party for computer geeks. Try and visualise just what such a gathering would be like… Face facts, operating systems are not really interesting in an of themselves.
Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. They are interesting to some people, myself included. But for ordinary computer users they are not. At all. In fact, the term ‘computer user’ itself is anachronistic – the majority of people don’t see using computers as an end in itself. Instead they use their computers for a litany of other tasks from e-mailing to watching movies.
Even for those of us interested in the technology itself, whether for reasons of pure geekery or because of an interest in what future technology will help us to do, the latest operating systems are fairly dull.
Here is a simple fact to think over: Windows 7 doesn’t exist. What Microsoft is marketing as Windows 7 is simply Vista, the much-loathed previous edition of Window, slimmed-down, re-skinned and with a few new features added. It is a minor upgrade, not a new operating system.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this – the name change is simply a marketing move designed to get away from Vista’s poor reputation and the system itself is a worthy upgrade. But it is not in any meaningful way a ‘new’ operating system. Similarly Apple’s Mac OS X Snow Leopard is not a new operating system worthy of celebration. In both cases the upgrades are not significant enough to warrant the attention they have garnered.
For both Apple and Microsoft the main innovation is the removal of decades of cruft that has accreted, slowing every function to a crawl on lower-powered machines. Rewriting inefficient code and removing vestigial features is a worthwhile enterprise, something that should be done a lot more in fact, but it is not exciting.
So what would qualify as a ‘new’ operating system, then? There are a couple of ways of looking at the issue. Obviously a completely new operating system, written from scratch, is one. Secondly, a major switch such as from DOS to Windows or from Windows 95/98 to NT/XP is a major change. Similarly, the switch from the classic Mac operating system to Mac operating system X was a genuinely huge shift. Although Mac operating system X incorporated some legacy technologies from older Mac systems it was, in fact, actually based on an entirely different operating system, NeXTStep.
What made Mac operating system X genuinely new was its new API, its changed focus and, to a lesser degree, its new user interface.
Some more minor upgrades, such as Mac OS X Tiger and Leopard, both of which brought a great deal of new features and significant changes to the OS, are worth talking about. Additionally, the ongoing shift on both platforms from 32- to 64-bit is noteworthy, at least among the tech crowd.
Neither Snow Leopard nor Windows 7, however, bring tectonic shifts in technology. In both cases they are merely point upgrades – worthy point upgrades , but point upgrades nonetheless. What they are not, is anything to get excited about.
Unfortunately, despite the presence of real innovation, the retail software industry is almost entirely predicated upon selling us software that we don’t need. Meaningful development is occasionally found in the world of operating systems, even in established ones, but let’s not pretend that what are essentially bug fixes are innovation.