Windows 7: Will it be good enough?

  • PDC 2008 Preview – Microsoft will give us a first glimpse at Windows 7 this week and will introduce developers to core components of the new operating system. So far, Microsoft used every opportunity to underwhelm customers when talking about its new software. Is this part of a carefully crafted strategy to surprise us with a great new Windows or is 7 just what many expect – Vista, take 2? Will Windows 7 be good enough to bring Microsoft’s client OS back on track? We know quite a bit and it is clear that Windows 7 may have a least one secret ace up its sleeve: GPU acceleration.


    Let’s be honest about it: Microsoft can stress as often as it wants that Vista is a big success and that it sells many more copies than XP sold initially (well, there are a lot more PCs in the market as well), but the numbers just don’t support these claims. While Windows (Vista) would a financial dream come true for virtually any other company out there, there is little doubt that Microsoft is struggling with growing sales and there is no doubt that Windows is losing market share, especially to Apple’s Mac OS X.   

    From a user perspective, Vista may have been a solid new OS for most users, but it is a far stretch from what it was promised to be. It is probably the first Windows that does not seem to be ahead of its time, but behind. At the same time, Apple is bursting with confidence about its operating system and Linux has never has been stronger, taking possession of new platforms - such as MIDs - that Windows can’t touch. Windows is in trouble and needs a fantastic Vista successor to regain credibility with consumers and business users.

    So, will Windows 7 be that successor? Of course, we haven’t seen Windows 7 yet, but let’s have a look at what we know, before we draw some initial conclusions.

    Windows 7: What we know

    There have been six main pieces of information that provided reliable information about the upcoming Windows 7 so far.

    1. Windows 7 Milestone releases: TG Daily was first to report Windows 7 M1 in January of this year – a release that looked a whole lot like Windows Vista, but we cautioned that the Vista UI may only be a wrapper for a new Windows 7 surface. Mary Jo Foley recently posted a story and screens on Windows 7 M3, the release that precedes the alpha that will be handed out to developers today, and Windows 7 still looks pretty much like Vista.

    2. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer multi-touch demonstration: The two executives announced multi-touch capability as a major new feature for Windows 7 at the D6 conference earlier this year.

    3. Interview of Steven Sinofsky by Cnet’s Ina Fried: Steven Sinofsky revealed that Windows 7 will be closely related to Windows Vista. Quotes:  “Windows Vista was about improving those things. We are going to build on the success and the strength of the Windows Server 2008 kernel, and that has all of this work that you've been talking about. The key there is that the kernel in Windows Server 08 is an evolution of the kernel in Windows Vista, and then Windows 7 will be a further evolution of that kernel as well. (…) There will be a lot of features in Windows 7. It's a major release. (…) Some of the things that we're going to do are going to make the release more applicable to a broader set of people, but it also might mean, oh, well, if you're not re-architecting the whole thing, then maybe it's not a major release. But we're actually going to bring forward the compatibility, and we're going to make sure that there's a lot of value for everybody who's a customer of Windows 7.”  

    4. Gartner Symposium interview with Steve Ballmer: In an on-stage interview, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer notes that “Windows 7 will be Vista, but a lot better”, focusing on a much cleaner interface.
    5. Windows 7 announcement: Microsoft decided to depart from the Windows Vista name and go for simplicity and chose Windows 7 as the name for the new OS.

    6. PDC 2008 track notes:22 of the 155 tracks at PDC are dedicated to Windows 7, spanning a wide variety of topics. Only cloud computing has more tracks (26) at this year’s PDC. The track topics are (yes, it’s a long list, but it is worth reading through it):

    • Developing for Microsoft Surface (includes Windows 7 multi-touch developer roadmap and access to the Microsoft Surface SDK)
    • Windows 7: Welcome to the Windows 7 Desktop (includes “exciting enhancements to the taskbar, Start Menu, and other desktop elements”)
    • Windows 7: Programming Sync Providers That Work Great with Windows (discusses application synchronization using the Microsoft Sync Framework)
    • Windows 7: Best Practices for Developing for Windows Standard User (talks about application development requirements in Windows 7 for UAC-compatibility, which are exactly the same as in Windows Vista. According to Microsoft, Vista-compatible applications will interact with UAC in Windows 7 without any modification. No new APIs are required or provided. However, the company claims that the UAC improvements for Windows 7 will impact the user's experience but not the application interface.)
    • Windows 7: Writing World-Ready Applications (focus on globalization features for Windows 7, including sorting and string comparison, locale support, and coverage for new languages)
    • Windows 7: Integrate with the Windows 7 Desktop (includes new APIs that enable integration with the “latest Windows desktop features”. A taste from Microsoft: “Discover how enhancements to the taskbar, Start Menu, thumbnails and their desktop elements provide new ways for you to delight your users. This talk is a must for application developers who want to provide the best user experience for their applications on Windows 7.”)
    • Windows 7: Using Instrumentation and Diagnostics to Develop High Quality Software (covers guidelines and best practices as well as a PowerShell-based troubleshooting platform)
    • Windows 7: Unlocking the GPU with Direct3D (Direct3D-based GPU acceleration of Win32 applications).
    • Windows 7: New APIs to Find, Visualize, and Organize (no details have been made available)
    • Windows 7: New APIs for Building Context-Aware Applications (no details have been made available)
    • Windows 7: Design Principles for Windows 7 (UI design guidelines for applications)
    • Windows 7: Developing Multi-touch Applications In Windows 7 (introduction of new multi-touch gesture APIs)
    • Windows 7: New Text and Graphics APIs (no details available)
    • Windows 7: New Shell User Experience APIs (no details available)
    • Windows Embedded "Quebec" (Windows 7 for embedded devices, includes embedded roadmap)
    • Windows 7: Web Services in Native Code (introduction of a new networking API with support for building SOAP based web services in native code)
    • Windows 7: Extending Battery Life with Energy Efficient Applications (best practices for designing energy efficient applications)
    • Windows 7: Deploying Your Application with Windows Installer (MSI)
    • Windows 7: Writing Your Application to Shine on Modern Graphics Hardware (talks about DirectX to enable Win32 apps to “harness” the horsepower graphics hardware. The track will also discuss how applications can “display graphics content on different generations of graphics hardware, across multiple displays and on a remote desktop”.)
    • Windows 7: Building Great Audio Communications Applications (no details available)
    • Windows 7: Benefiting from Documents and Printing Convergence (focuses on document workflow).
    • Windows 7: Designing Efficient Background Processes (best practices for background process design and dives deep on the capabilities of the Service Control Manager (SCM) and Task Scheduler.” Microsoft says the track will also provide information how “to use new Windows 7 infrastructure to develop efficient background tasks.”)

    If you haven’t read through the entire list or just flew over it, let’s summarize what we know in a few words:

    Windows 7 will build on Vista, it will look like Vista, but it will be better than Vista. Microsoft drops the Vista name and will prepare developers for the new OS: Major new features include multi-touch, new desktop features, Microsoft promotes context-aware apps, performance enhancements and energy efficient software as well as efficient background processes.

    The big surprise here, of course, is GPU acceleration – a feature that will be integrated in Apple’s Mac OS X Snow Leopard as well. There are two dedicated tracks (Windows 7: Unlocking the GPU with Direct3D; Windows 7: Writing Your Application to Shine on Modern Graphics Hardware) and we don’t know many details yet, but these two tracks may be among the most interesting at PDC this year. I mentioned before that I truly believe that GPGPU/cGPU acceleration holds the keys to one of the most significant opportunities in software development for decades. If Microsoft is offering this type of support in Windows 7 then Windows users may be in for a big treat.

    Read on the next page: What needs to be fixed

    What needs to be fixed

    Since we haven’t seen Windows 7 yet, we are transitioning at this point from objective information to a purely subjective part and this author’s opinion on how the new features will compare to Vista’s shortcomings. Feel free to chime in at the end of this article and discuss with other readers how you feel about the evolution of Windows Vista to Windows 7.

    What’s wrong with Vista

    Windows Vista is no Windows 3.1. Windows 3.1 and especially Windows 3.11 were the breakthrough versions of Windows. Back in 1992/1993, Windows was well ahead of its time and it could do virtually anything you could think of at the time. It ran all the types of software most users may be running today, it was multimedia-capable and played MP3s, you could connect to the Internet, etc. - you get my point. There seemed to be always a possibility to tweak the software to achieve a certain goal – there was a certain excitement Vista does not have anymore.    

    It’s not 1992. Vista may not have the excitement of 3.11 anymore, but it’s also a different time, of course. Vista’s initial sales pitch described a commodity operating system – install it and leave it alone. This was in line with Microsoft’s ongoing promise that the new Windows is much easier to use (I have heard that pitch at every OS launch since Windows 95). The reality is that  Vista has become boring, but is still way too complex to use for new users and too time-consuming for those who just don’t want to spend hours configuring the software. Why is it that a new Mac OS X computer can be set up in its entirety in less than 10 minutes and Windows Vista requires more than 30 (excluding the removal of crapware)? At the same time, Vista is not flexible enough for those who enjoy tweaking their system in a way Windows 3.1 did.  
    Microsoft is simply reacting. Vista looked old on the first day it was available. It seems that Microsoft’s product managers are trying to catch up with consumer trends, rather than creating them. Was there really something unexpected in Vista, something that was unexpected and blew our socks off – something that wasn’t available anywhere else? Nope. That trend even continues in Windows 7 with multi-touch. It may be a new feature for a desktop, but this seems like an Apple idea to me and I personally doubt that many PC users today would want to use their fingers to move objects around their PC screen.

    Windows is bloated.
    It seems that many software companies have trouble squeezing more and more features into their GUIs. Software like CorelDraw X4 suffers from bloated menus and firms such as Adobe are actively trying to provide users with options to customize their menus. Windows Vista is running on my quad-core PC much slower than what I would expect and certainly much slower than Mac OS X on the dual-core Mac of my wife. To me, the expansive feature set of Vista lacks organization, negatively impacts productivity and makes Windows Vista look like an elephant stuck in swamp, with tigers and leopards (and soon snow leopards) running circles around it.      
    Stability, security. Yes, the number of system crashes has gone down with Vista, but if Steve Ballmer wants to sell Windows as a commodity and we are told that a PC should be as easy to use as a TV, stability needs to go up even further. My PC, typically in use about 12-16 hours a day, crashes about twice a month on average. Mac OS X crashes as well, but I can’t remember when my TV crashed the last time. Security remains a big problem and even if you may argue that Windows is vulnerable because it is the most attractive target (because it is the largest target), any serious vulnerability is one too many.

    Feature patchwork. Ok, so Windows Vista has been about features. But some feature additions have been rather inconclusive. Example: Vista has been touted as a high-definition operating system, yet there was no Blu-ray/HD DVD playback included (which requires a chain of HDMI/HDCP hardware). Vista SP2 now will get Blu-ray media recording ability, but apparently lacks Blu-ray playback support. Decisions such as these are beyond me.   

    Internet Explorer. You may use a different browser for the Internet, but the Internet Explorer and its underlying technology are a big part of Windows. Internet Explorer 7 was a milestone release, but considering the latest browser releases of Apple, Google and Mozilla, the rules are changing and Microsoft seems to be dozing away. In fact, if Microsoft isn’t able to include dramatic improvements into IE8 and IE8 final will be similar to the current beta 2, the new browser may turn into a disaster. If we leave the IE’s two new proprietary features aside and look at true usability and pure speed, the competition is light years ahead.     

    Enterprise appeal. There is little doubt that Microsoft has gambled away a lot of its credibility with Vista in the enterprise world. Nine out of ten large corporations we talked to recently are still running on Windows XP and have little desire to change that scenario. Previous surveys confirm that impression. Vista favors features over productivity, it is complex to use and too expensive to support. Corporations may, as Steve Ballmer noted, upgrade with hardware refresh cycles, but they also need to see a protection of their investment and Vista apparently convinced very few that this is actually the case with Vista.  

    Read on the next page: Conclusion: Windows 7 needs to be the OS Vista should have been

    Conclusion: Vista SE or not, Windows 7 needs to be the OS Vista should have been

    So, will Windows 7 be good enough? We will find out this week, but this question has really two angles: Will Windows 7 be good enough to fix Vista? And: Will Windows 7 be good enough to be the next great Windows?

    Realistically, Windows 7 shapes up to be one giant patch for Windows Vista and Microsoft’s claims that 7 will be a major operating system release may be perceived as a bit silly in this context. A facelift for Vista, a new GUI and support for multi-touch do not qualify for the description of a new “major release” in my opinion. We will have to see how the topic of GPU acceleration pans out, but this could be a big deal and may become the big surprise no one expected.

    Also, the name Windows 7 may also indicate Microsoft’s direction. The name is a departure from Vista, despite the close relationship of Windows 7 and Vista, and is inconsistent with any Microsoft branding we have seen (at least for Windows) over the past decade. It appears that Windows 7 will be a transitional operating system: The new OS gets rid of the Vista name and lays the foundation for a new operating system generation after 7.

    There is very little doubt that Windows 7 will “fix” Vista and that it will be the operating system Vista should have been. I doubt that multi-touch will be all that it is cracked up to be, but if Windows 7 in fact can allow applications to run more efficiently, if there are speed improvements and desktop enhancements, Windows 7 should turn into a worthy upgrade.

    In that case, it would make a lot of sense for Microsoft to give Windows 7 away for free or for next to nothing to all Vista owners (but since Steve Ballmer already told us that Windows 7 is a “major release”, which will allow Microsoft to charge full price for Windows 7.)  

    Whether Windows 7 can be called a major release depends on your definition of “major release.”

    So, if it is a decent upgrade for Windows, is Windows 7 also good enough to be the next great Windows? Sure, I haven’t seen the software yet, but from what we know so far, I feel comfortable to answer that question with a no.

    Hopefully, Microsoft is already working on a new Windows that is based on a completely new foundation such as Singularity. Microsoft needs to get back into touch with its users, re-prioritize the goals of its software, make the software more nimble, secure, stable, productive and fun to work with. Honestly, on some days, Windows Vista can be really painful to work with.

    Simplicity we don’t expect and features that haven’t been offered by others before would help as well. That process may start with communicating its work and ideas with the user community much more directly than before: Microsoft PR isn’t known to be especially aggressive and responsive, but the Windows 7 Engineering blog is a great effort to shed light on what is going on behind the scenes at Microsoft.

    Above all, Microsoft needs a new operating system it can be proud of. There was so much wrong with Vista’s rollout and Microsoft seems to be insecure about the way it handles and discusses the Vista topic in public – which is especially shown in the company’s gigantic advertising campaign. Like Windows, the campaign simply reacts to Apple, it is too complex and too difficult to understand - and is ridiculed by Apple once again.

    Windows 7 may fix Vista. But there is an end to everything – and Windows 7 could be the perfect product to conclude a Windows era.

    Microsoft, I am looking forward to a much better Vista. But after that, I am ready for something entirely new.        

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