Indie Hypocrisy Part Deux: Notch & Walled Gardens

The last time I wrote one of these types of posts, it ignited a bit of a firestorm on Twitter. While some of that was something I should of expected because of the personalities I was criticising, my post was also more mean spirited than it needed to be to make my point. I’m going to try to not be so harsh this time. Also, be aware that the things I’m levying my criticisms at happened a little while ago. I didn’t have any time to blog last month so this isn’t as topical as some of my other posts are.

Being as big a fan of the PC as I am, I’ve been paying close attention to Windows 8 which is due to launch later this week. My opinions of it have swung around quite a bit and I’m still in a bit of a weird place where I’m not sure what to think about it. It’s likely a number of posts in the near future will be talking about it in some way.

I am a huge admirer of both Minecraft and it’s creator Markus Persson (aka Notch). The game is not really my thing but I totally see what’s cool about it and why it’s become the viral sensation it is. Notch went from obscurity to overnight epic success and in my opinion, he deserves it. Not unlike myself and others I’ve both criticised and admired, he’s also known for speaking his mind bluntly, something he did when he took Microsoft to task over Windows 8. As I said in my last one of these posts, I like people who speak their mind, even when they know it will stir up controversy. This industry is too full of PR filtered crap and it needs more brutal honesty. But (and I say this as someone who still isn’t running Windows 8 and is very much on the fence about it), I think Notch’s slamming Windows 8 for being closed is both disingenuous and hypocritical.

Now, one of Neowin’s reporters already said to Notch a lot of what I wanted to say here. Basically, he slammed Windows 8 for being closed and the author called him a hypocrite because he happily embraces other ultra-closed platforms such as iOS and Microsoft’s own Xbox Live Arcade, both of which have seen great success with their respective versions of Minecraft. Unfortunately, Notch chose to respond as if he was personally attacked which I don’t think the tone of the article was doing. His statements against Windows 8 were his and the author responded to him. And the thing is, the author’s right.

What I find hypocritical is embracing platforms that are engineered from the ground up to be as closed and controlled by their creators as possible while simultaneously condemning a platform that is still one of the most open this side of Linux. Now it’s true, the new “Modern UI” (formerly Metro) component of Windows 8 does require that any software written for it be sold exclusively through Microsoft’s Windows Store and go through a certification process. Microsoft also gets a cut of those sales. I’m among those who see the potential in it but have strong reservations about what it can mean for Windows itself.

But here’s the thing: The wide open desktop component is still alive and well in Windows 8 and there’s zero evidence it’s going anywhere. Many doomsayers claim that the “Modern UI” is Microsoft trying to turn your PC into a closed tablet ecosystem where you can only run what they let you and only if they get their cut. I can understand there being concerns about that, I really can, but there is simply no proof that such a thing is their full intent or that the desktop will suddenly be gone in Windows 9. To do such a thing would be suicide for Windows and Microsoft knows it. Enterprise will never adopt a walled garden ecosystem, there are years of applications out there that require the desktop that will never get Modern UI versions and the way the environment is engineered will simply make a lot of specialised and high-end applications impossible. Most modern games and media creation software for example, simply can’t work as walled apps. These are just two of the segments that drive Windows dominance in the PC space and Microsoft’s not going to cut them off.

Should their intentions change, I’ll be right at the front of the hate line with my pitchfork and torch. I’m simply wanting to see evidence of intent before I get in that line and there isn’t any yet. Adding a new, closed layer on top of the desktop is certainly reason to raise an eyebrow and observe but it is proof of nothing. The fact is, Apple made super closed ecosystems popular, Google made them more popular and Microsoft is simply continuing on a trend that people want. And what many mainstream people are saying is that they don’t care about not owning content and having everything be controlled by a large company, so long as there’s an appearance of security and they don’t have to make any real effort to learn how to use a computing device. Not to put too fine a point on it but a lot of people are lazy and/or stupid and they have a lot of money. If Microsoft wants to be a part of that, I have no issue as long as the parts that I both know how to use and enjoy remain and continue to be supported. If I start to feel sidelined, I will look elsewhere but I don’t believe I have been yet.

Where I believe Notch really became disingenuous was when he claimed that Microsoft wanted to certify Minecraft for Windows 8, implying that if he didn’t certify it, his game wouldn’t work at all on the new OS. That’s simply not true. What they actually wanted to do was create a “Modern UI” version of Minecraft that would be sold in the Windows Store and which would likely work on the new Windows RT tablets in addition to Windows 8 on PCs. If he doesn’t want to do it, that’s his choice but the existing PC version of Minecraft works just fine in Windows 8′s desktop environment. I know, I just tried it on a test machine before I wrote this. There is no certification process for desktop software on Windows 8 and it’s just as open a platform as it ever was. Leaving out this detail was a critical omission on Notch’s part and I don’t think it helps his argument. Windows 8′s “Modern UI” environment is no different than the Mac App Store and just is as restrictive in many ways. But like the Mac App Store, it’s completely optional to use (though I admit, it’s much more in your face) and if you want your wild west environment that is the desktop, it’s still there and comes with a few improvements in Windows 8 to boot. Minecraft is not being shut out of Windows 8 because he chooses not to have a version of it in the Windows Store.

A lot of this fearmongering of Microsoft killing the desktop reminds me of a big controversy back when Windows Vista launched. A New Zealand based security researcher claimed that Vista had layers of DRM baked in that were designed to make it impossible to play unauthorised content on it and was closing large portions of Windows to protect the interests of content industries (i.e. Hollywood and the record companies). He got a lot of press and a lot of people condemned it as the beginning of the end for Windows. Long story short, his paper was proven to be poorly researched, biased garbage (see Response to Criticism section), none of what he predicted came true and he’s pretty much never been heard from since. Now, Windows Vista was a pile of burning garbage for other reasons but this chief scare tactic just wasn’t true but everyone still got riled up despite a lack of proper evidence.

Now I want to be clear, Minecraft is Notch’s game and he can choose to put it or not on whatever platforms he chooses. If he doesn’t want to be part of the Windows Store, I don’t hold that against him. Even if I end up installing Windows 8, I don’t see myself buying a lot of content from there. I do however believe that he doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on when he claims he’s against closed platforms while embracing some of the most closed ones around at the same time and I find it a disservice to his fans to phrase his objection like Microsoft is shutting Minecraft out of Windows 8 altogether when that’s simply not true and there’s no evidence whatsoever that they plan to go in the direction he claims they are.

I’m trying to keep an open mind about Windows 8 but I do have concerns about Microsoft’s long view of where Windows and the PC are going. But past evidence has shown that trying to guess motive and getting upset about it in advance usually just ends up making people look ridiculous. When Microsoft decides to deprecate the desktop, PC users should be upset and I’ll be right there with them but until then, can we base our criticisms on facts rather than wild speculation?

Notch, I highly doubt you’re ever going to read this but if you do, I hope you don’t also interpret it as a personal attack. I truly have a lot of respect for you and what you’ve accomplished. I don’t intend to insult you but as someone who does have a large pulpit from which to speak, I don’t believe what you’ve been claiming properly serves either your fans of the PC community as a whole. You may disagree and that’s cool but I hope you may understand where some people find issue with the position you’ve proffered. I’m not trying to convince you to like Windows 8 but if you’re going to hate it, please hate it based on what’s known rather than assumed and understand that when you embrace elsewhere what you rail against Windows 8 for, it causes some to ask why.

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One Response to Indie Hypocrisy Part Deux: Notch & Walled Gardens

  1. Pingback: My Bold Predictions for 2013 « Geek Bravado

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