Microsoft’s All-Cloud Windows is what I dislike about Modern Computing

I never have had a good track record with massive changes to Windows, starting with Windows 8 which was entirely unusable in my case. It wasn’t just the mobile-style graphics and the bloat, but also the fact I couldn’t get more than a couple of days before the installation would break. This went on for a while as I tried to figure out why it was breaking, and I probably went through dozens of installs that themselves took nearly as long as the time I could actually use the device before it broke again. After determining it was an update to blame, I deferred updates and set my connection to a metered connection, either of which on their own should have solved the issue. Yet soon after I was greeted by another update screen, followed by yet another bricked install.

Returning to the present time, I’ve learned that Microsoft wants to release a version of Windows that would be run entirely in the cloud for personal devices, and though they did not seem to want to release its existence at that moment, their recent court case forced it out. This, as you can probably guess from my intro, is not something I’m a fan of. Well, actually, I’m not a huge fan of the push to do everything in the cloud in general; which is why the title of the post isn’t saying I dislike what could be, but that I dislike what is, and what will be is just an opportunity to complain about both present and future. This is of course unrelated to virtual workstations in a corporate environment, especially those hosted by the company or a trusted third party provider, but just about personal devices.

As proposed, this service by Microsoft would have you purchase a device from them, which would work entirely in the cloud. The device would have a very tiny operating system which would be just enough to connect to the internet where the remote desktop could be connected to. Now, this worked well with computers a long while back when they weren’t even powerful enough to process graphics locally, and it’s a useful tool in the proverbial tool belt to outsource computing resources when doing heavy tasks from game streaming to running generative AI; but in this case everything from your web browsing to storing your photos would all be done on Microsoft’s servers and then streamed back to you over the internet. Outside of the obvious fact that your device wouldn’t function without an internet connection, I have three areas in which I would be concerned about a system like this.

The first concern I would have over a system like this is its business model, which in line with the contemporary internet business model would include a combination of ads, data collection (for both ads and selling to other ad companies), and subscription models. On the side of ads and data collection, of course Windows already likes to do these things, but in an all cloud environment they’re likely to only be taken further. But with ads and selling data only worth fractions of a penny per user, they’re also likely to jump to the only way the currently struggling tech companies can actually make money: subscriptions. Now, don’t get crazy, I’m certain you’ll have to pay hundreds for the device outright, but once you do you’ll likely be forced to pay a monthly subscription for the computer you bought to prevent it from becoming a paperweight. In the event you generally upgrade computers every ~5 years, if you were to pay $15 a month for a subscription to actually use it, that’s an extra $900 tacked onto the price of the hardware.

The tracking and ads portion of the business, however, has a more hidden sinister side to it. While fears of YouTube tracking which videos are watched is likely not on the forefront of many people’s mind, as more and more personal and sensitive data is stored on the cloud it should begin to be alarming for everyone. First, unless it is end to end encrypted (which I HIGHLY doubt Microsoft would do, if it’s even technologically feasible for an all cloud OS), all of your data would be accessible to a large group of Microsoft employees, as well as anybody malicious who got their hands on their credentials. Rogue employees have already caused problems, and data leaks are a daily occurrence, but unlike now with a service like this it would be your entire computer itself with all of your accounts and files at risk of being accessed or leaked.

There is, however, a second subset to my tracking and subscriptions complaint, and like tracking and ads there’s another hidden risk that can effect you. Generally speaking any service is going to have a terms of service, and most any service is also going to be actively searching for illegal activity being performed on their services. Starting with illegal activity, while I want to clarify I don’t actually recommend breaking the law, various cloud services have already had false detections where they deleted accounts and contacted authorities. Similarly, detections of broken terms of service of a cloud service can also easily get your account temporarily or permanently disabled or deleted, even if said violations never occurred; and there can also be other unexpected limitations like preventing certain content in your private digital documents. Like above, these are all already the case, but in the event your entire computer was on a single cloud service this could be much more devastating in the event these powers are exercised.

Pivoting to past complaints and back to my anecdote from above, after a little more digging I found out that the update that was bricking my system was considered important by Microsoft. Despite the fact either setting ‘should’ have disabled updates, it was considered to important for me to refuse. After some more digging I was able to entirely disable the update service temporarily, which fixed my issue until a more permanent solution was found. This, of course, brings me to my last point, which is a cloud based operating system would likely take away all of your controls and ownership from your device.

Back to the present, on the control side of things, if you really need to disable updates you can force your computer to do so (although that’d be generally not recommended). Similarly, believe it or not you can still yank out the telemetry and data collection on Windows by disabling the appropriate service. You can still install any software you want, and you have administrative controls. In a cloud based operating system all of that is likely to disappear. Similarly, but more on the ideological side, is simply the idea of owning your own device. You could have a computer that ultimately answers to you, or you could buy the hardware but lease the software for a monthly payment while giving Microsoft the final say on what you do, while hoping you don’t get your account deleted. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the former. Well actually I prefer not using Windows at all, which was my final solution to Windows 8’s issues, but that’s a topic for another set of complaints.

At the end of the day, however, computers are just a means to an end and you should use whatever accomplishes that the best, including cloud based operating systems if they meet your needs and you understand their drawbacks. I’m also not saying that everything in the cloud is bad (for example, cloud backups are almost a necessity), but the cloud certainly has its flaws as well. That said, if at all possible, I’d certainly recommend avoiding the cloud when there’s a comparable alternative that fits your needs.