Windows 8 RTM: Redmond just obsoleted 300 million PCs
"Obsoleted" is hyperbole, if not grammatically suspect. But what do you expect for my first Verge forum posting? This is the Internet, and you are bias.
Like more than a few Verge readers, I recently discovered a final build of Windows 8 on a DVD-R in my possession. I decided I would treat this opportunity as a kind of Second Consumer Preview; if Microsoft actually has fixed most of what I believed to be wrong with their new OS during the last year of its development cycle, I'd be happy to pay for one or more licenses once the thing goes on sale for realz. So last night, I chose my "least mission-critical" PC (by which I mean the one that is totally unable to handle Starcraft 2) to be the final Windows 8 test-bed. This circa 2005 machine has a late vintage AGP graphics board, 2GB of ram, and a Pentium 4 3.2Ghz ("Prescott") with Hyperthreading. Go ahead, mock me, ask me why it isn't in a museum already. It was free - some neighborly (or wasteful?) New Yorker left it out with her trash so I took it home. It's a perfectly fine Windows 7 machine for web browsing, email, word processing, iTunes, Hulu, YouTube, Netflix, and regular visits with the cat sewing animated GIF (H/T @laura_june.) I have several PCs, and some day I will give Ole Deller away to a needy, unemployed friend who will use it to write a graduate thesis or a brilliant piece of Twilight fanfic. But I digress...
Earlier this year, I had attempted to install the Release Preview on that same machine but had gotten nowhere due to a hardware requirement introduced relatively late in the Windows 8 production cycle. After Googling the unhelpful error code that was displayed after my installation failure, I discovered that my trusty old Dell lacked an "XD bit," so the Release Preview was not happening. The idea that my perfectly adequate Windows 7 machine would never know the sweet majesty of the Metro UI's weather app didn't sit right with me. I felt betrayed. I must have shouted "[Expletive]ing Microsoft. You've got to be [expletive]ing kidding me" seven or eight times. I realize it's ancient hardware, but it's ancient hardware that still worked and was reasonably fast. There was something so un-Microsoft about this move. (Something even more un-Microsoft than the genuinely elegant, stylish experience that is Metro.) I expect Cupertino to flip me the bird from time to time and strong arm me into a hardware purchase I really don't need. But Microsoft? The company that pledges to continue supporting an OS released in 2001 through 2014? Maybe in the Post-PC Era, "innovate" is nothing more than a polite way of saying "make assloads of cash." But if this is what Ballmer meant when he said that Apple wouldn't "out-innovate" his company, I want nothing of the new Microsoft.
Anywho, after more Googling and commiserating with others confused as to why Redmond had changed the hardware requirements in between the Consumer Preview and the Release Preview, I sort of lost interest in the enterprise altogether. I've used every public Microsoft Beta OS going back to Windows 98, but this time I just couldn't be bothered; Windows 7 is still pretty damned great. Plus I told myself that this new hardware requirement was just a trial balloon; surely Microsoft would hear a small but vocal minority screaming in tech forums, rethink their minimum specs, and ultimately cast the widest net possible. I mean, that's how they roll.
It turns out, I was wrong. This is not your father's Microsoft. (Except when it is, see below.) My copy of the Windows 8 RTM disk wouldn't run an upgrade install from within XP, so I was forced to boot directly to the DVD. But it turns out that, for no good reason I can think of, the installer that you boot to lacks the ability to check your hardware for compatibility problems (THAT's your father's Microsoft.) But I had foolishly assumed that in 2012, Microsoft wouldn't be that lame, so I allowed the installer to work its magic. As it copied files and replaced my boot loader, I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if 300 million middle-aged CPUs suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly packed up for shipping to spend the rest of eternity at the bottom of a landfill in China. I raced back into my living room to discover this:
I had seen this message before. I'm pretty sure 0X0000005D is machine language for "Enjoy your contaminated drinking water, Villagers of Zhanglidong!"
Seriously, considering that everyone agrees that MS will flourish or perish with the success or failure of Windows 8, is that really the best they could do? As I will explain shortly, hundreds of thousands, even millions of Windows 8 buyers are destined to see this very unhelpful error code. I mean, guess Sad Mac isn't much better, but how about some plain English to go with my Error Code: 0x0000005D? If you Google It, you may get this plain English courtesy of Technet Forum Assistant Leo Huang:
"To install Windows 8 Release Preview on your PC, the processor (CPU) must support the following features: Physical Address Extension (PAE), NX, and SSE2. Most CPUs have support for these features, so if you receive this error, it is likely because the NX feature is not enabled on your system.
If the BIOS setting for the NX support option is not available on your system, you may need to contact the manufacturer for updating the BIOS. Note that some older processors may not contain these features and will be incompatible with Windows 8 Release Preview."
(Italics mine - notice that they didn't say "some older processors may not contain these features and will be incompatible with Windows 8"[full stop] which suggests that only a couple of months ago, Microsoft questioned the wisdom of excluding millions of older PCs from the finished Windows 8. (And if you'll allow another digression.... I'm not a big fan of "contact the manufacturer" or "updating the BIOS," but that's better than nothing. With millions of Americans out of work and the future of the company on the line, Microsoft couldn't be bothered to hire anyone to plug this helpful explanatory text into their DOS Screen of Death??? Okay, digression over.)
So what's an XD bit you say? Would it help if I told you it's an NX bit implementation by Intel based on technology licensed from AMD? No? You haven't lost too much nerd cred here - 99.8% of the PC users in the world have no idea what an XD bit or an NX bit is.
According to Wikipedia, AMD branded the NX bit implementation in their AMD64 architecture "Enhanced Virus Protection," which is a clumsy, consumer-friendly statement of its purpose. NX does indeed stand for "no-execute," so if you're thinking that XD or NX has something to do with preventing the execution of malicious code, you're right, and you understand it about as well as I do. Says the Wiki, "An operating system with support for the NX bit may mark certain areas of memory as non-executable. The processor will then refuse to execute any code residing in these areas of memory. The general technique, known as executable space protection, is used to prevent certain types of malicious software from taking over computers by inserting their code into another program's data storage area and running their own code from within this section; this is known as a buffer overflow attack."
Most of the reasonably tech-savvy people Redmond hopes to sell a shrink-wrapped copy of Windows 8 would have a hard time figuring out if their computer is capable of "no-execute," or if their BIOS supports it, and whether it is enabled in their BIOS settings. This is where Steve Jobs would look down on us from Heaven with an impish grin and say "If you're asking a user to flash his BIOS before installing your new OS, YOU BLEW IT." Forget all the 7- and 8-year-old Pentium 4 machines they've obsoleted, just think of all the 3- and 4-year-old machines with fairly modern Intel and AMD chips in them that won't be able to install Windows 8 without the correct BIOS settings, or a properly flashed BIOS. I'm pretty sure this is not some brilliant strategy to smooth things over with Acer by strong-arming millions of people into replacing their old Aspires with brand new Acer Ultrabooks running Windows 8. Many of those would-be upgraders will decide they have better things to do than learn how to flash a BIOS; they'll return their copies of Windows 8 and conclude that Windows 7 is good enough. (Plus it has a Start Menu.) And unless they are using a sleek new tablet, they'll be right. Word will travel fast that for people hanging on to older machines (normal people - your parents, middle schools, libraries, small businesses, etc.), the upgrade process can be frustrating, if it is even possible.
By my very rough estimates, some 300 million Pentium 4's lack NX bit implementation. (AMD introduced it with their Athlon 64 and Intel was slow to the party. It only appeared late in the Prescott-era. As late as mid-2005 Intel was releasing some new processors that didn't support it.) I don't know how many of those 300 million machines are still functioning, how many are on Facebook right now, how many are in attics and how many are in landfills. I do know that the Windows 8 kernel WILL NOT RUN on any processor that lacks NX implementation. And it didn't have to be that way. Perhaps earlier builds of Win8 didn't utilize the extra security NX offers? Perhaps they were considering maintaining a different Windows 8 kernel just for older machines? And I am no computer scientist, so I don't know exactly how vital NX will be to the future of PC security. But I do know this is another classically boneheaded Microsoft move. (Remember the User Account Control nags in Vista? Poison to me!)
I still look forward to exploring Windows 8 (with one of my newer machines that isn't running OS X) and discovering the myriad ways Redmond has found to screw the pooch. And maybe, I'll decide I can live without the Start Menu and with all the compromises Microsoft is forcing on us in the name of winning the future/beating Apple. There's much to like in Windows 8. It has "teh snappy," for one thing. But first I have to perform first aid on my old Dell: after booting back to XP, the installer seemed to know that it had failed to upgrade my incompatible machine to Windows 8, but it didn't care to restore my bootloader back to its virgin state - if I don't hit a key in the 2 seconds provided after powering on, Windows 8 automatically tries (and fails) to start up. Ah, Error Code 0x0000005D. That's the incompetent, user-unfriendly Microsoft I know and love. Don't ever change!