This week my column takes a look at Microsoft and their recent move to unify the PC and Xbox ecosystems. Actually, I guess it’s not a recent move so much as another re-commitment to an idea they keep flirting with and abandoning. If they could merge the Xbox and PC into a single group by allowing players to take their library, friends list, and save games with them between platforms, then that would make the resulting PC/Xbox hybrid the biggest console platform.
Back in the 90s and aughts, Microsoft’s grip on the PC market was really strong. You used Windows because everyone else used windows and everyone needed to be able to share documents. Your software collection was Windows-based and switching was difficult. Macs were nice, but they were really expensive and they had trouble sharing files with your business colleagues. Linux was free, but it was still a platform for gurus and it had a lot of the same data-sharing problems.
But today? Most programs are either multi-platform by design or universally available through the cloud. You can do word processing, spreadsheets, image editing, video editing, music editing, file sharing, spread sheeting, and web-browsing on any of these platforms and have a reasonable expectation of being able to share files with everyone else. We’re doing more and more on the cloud, and the OS matters less and less.
The two exceptions to this trend are:
- Enterprise customers. Large companies want to have everyone on the same OS, and Windows is the most convenient option for them.
- Gamers. Gaming on Mac and Linux are possible, but only if you’re not picky about selection. And most PC gamers are incredibly picky about selection.
Windows is still enjoying a ridiculous market share. Based on various charts around the web, it looks like 75%-80% of all desktop users are on Windows. Among Steam users, that percentage jumps to 95%.
Enterprise customers or home users might someday chafe at the Windows license and migrate to Linux. If you just use the machine for email, web, and basic productivity, then moving to Linux is viableIs it? It seems like it should be, but people don’t seem to be switching. This probably goes back to the idea that convenience is king.. On the other hand, if you have even a passing interest in PC gaming then you don’t really have much choice. It’s either use Windows or find a new hobby.
This makes this very interesting for Microsoft. On one hand, you could argue that Microsoft should take extra care to keep PC gamers happy, since that’s essentially your hardcore base. On the other hand, the lack of a viable alternative means that Microsoft is free to take gamers for granted.
Maybe this is why the Microsoft strategy seems so unfocused. They can’t seem to figure out if gaming is a pillar of their platform or a captive audience. To this day I don’t understand what Games for Windows Live was supposed to accomplish. It was this massive draconian thing that took over games and put itself in charge of critical dataLike keeping your save files safe, which it then utterly failed to do.. On the other hand, it was also this goofy-ass pile of broken technology that made no sense. Was this the result of apathy, or incompetence? Or was the system working as intended and making PC gaming miserable was a deliberate strategic decision? All of these things sound ridiculous, because the platform itself was so ridiculous. It’s like a mugger who steals all your money, and then sets it on fire and burns himself in the process. It’s obvious your plan failed, but what were you trying to accomplish?
If Microsoft actually wanted to keep this PC gamer happy, then here is a bunch of stuff I’d like to see:
- Make everything faster. Just spend an entire release on figuring out what makes Windows slow and fixing it. I will gladly pay for Windows 11, even if it has the same feature list as Windows 10 and the only change is that everything is snappier.Every release has a few useless new geegaws, but none of them justify the massive rise in system requirements. Why is it so slow to boot? What does it take up so much memory? Why is the file search so abysmal? It is completely nuts that I can search for documents on the internet dozens of times faster than I can search for a filename on my local SSD. What is the machine doing with all those CPU cycles?!
- Come up with some sort of coherent policy regarding full-screen applications and how programs are supposed to behave. Running fullscreen feels like a hack game developers discovered and not a feature of the operating system. Having a full-screen game change the display resolution on my main monitor should not shuffle around all of my other applications and move them to a different monitor. The full screen mode is obviously a temporary state.
- Task manager needs to be able to help me out when a game crashes. Barring that, the OS should. If something crashes when running full-screen, then I shouldn’t be trapped and unable to kill the process. (For example: Sometimes task manager appears BEHIND the program I’m trying to kill.)
- Notifications should not pop up when I’m gaming. Obviously. That popup that appears behind games and asks me if the game is allowed to use network resources is double useless. Not only does it appear where I can’t see it until I’m done playing, but it doesn’t seem to stop games from working if I don’t grant them permission. What is this nonsense for?
- Forcing a surprise update is totally unacceptable and you need to stop that right now. It causes lots of problems. I understand that some idiots refuse to apply updates and their compromised machines cause problems for the rest of us, but having my machine yank me out of game for a popup to reboot now or annoy me again in an hour is unforgivable. I might be streaming. Or recording game footage. Or in the middle of a multiplayer match. Or doing work close to an important deadline. Or just, you know, having a good time. At least let the update sit there as an option for a couple of weeks before you strong-arm the user.
- Make everything faster. Yes, I said that already. Do it again. Trust me, there’s lots of stuff left to streamline.
- I’m sick of this problem: I open up an explorer window to look through the files. Windows sees a couple of the files are audio in nature, so it assumes the entire directory is part of my “music” collection. So it hides the fields for file size, creation date, and file type, and instead it shows album, artist, length, song name, and genre. In most cases the audio files are part of a game install and don’t contain that metadata. So Windows hid a bunch of information I need so it can show me blank fields for a bunch of stuff it couldn’t find. By all means, give the user a button for “media view”, but give us a way to turn that shit off when we’re trying to do something more complicated than putting files on a Zune. If Windows is going to be this stupid, then it shouldn’t go around trying to think for the user.
- No, I don’t want Cortana taking up a chunk of my taskbar. Please stop restoring her after every update. She’s useless. Give up. You can’t annoy me into liking her.
- I realize that UWP apps are locked away in a sandbox, but isn’t there any way to open that up? As it stands, games from the Windows 10 store can’t be used with capture software. No Bandicam. No capturing the window for streaming. That limitation is so severe that it basically makes the games useless for a non-trivial segment of the audience. Streaming and YouTube are big these days, you know?
- Make everything faster again. One more time. Just to be sure.
I’d consider all of these things to be more important than cross-play with Xbox.
I don’t really expect that Proton can save us from Microsoft’s machinations. Compatibility is hard, and compatibility with a closed OS that has 30+ years of accumulated cruft is even harder. It’s probably impossible, but I keep hoping something comes of it anyway.
I’m curious: What would you like to see Windows do to make gaming nicer on the PC?
 Is it? It seems like it should be, but people don’t seem to be switching. This probably goes back to the idea that convenience is king.
 Like keeping your save files safe, which it then utterly failed to do.
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