In our home, October 22 has been the focus of anticipation for some weeks now. Our eldest becomes a teenager that day, and so the days have been filled with a count-down, and many lists of things to do in the build-up and during the day itself, with friends, and with family.  Well, the day is finally upon us – may the celebrations begin. But little does my daughter know that this day has been awaited with much anticipation by a slightly larger group of people than her family and friends. In fact, thousands upon thousands have been waiting for this day: a hundred thousand Microsoft employees and the millions more that share the Windows ecosystem, as October 22 ushers in the official launch of Windows 7.

For many in Microsoft, Windows Vista tarnished the brand of the software giant’s most valuable product. Although Vista sought to deliver a new architecture for operating systems that addressed growing security concerns among PC users, the end-result was poor performance on many PCs and numerous security features that annoyed the very users they were supposed to protect.  The word on the street was to stick with XP. Although Vista sold in the millions, the vast majority of the Windows installed base, consumer or business, never moved from Windows XP.

Will anything change with Windows 7?

The answer is yes, and here are some reasons why.

Performance

Windows 7 works on little netbooks and on older PCs. So its performance on modern PCs is pretty much faultless. In fact, one analyst expects that Windows 7 will work on around two-thirds of the PCs installed in businesses already. Microsoft achieved this better performance in a number of ways, but probably the most significant is the fact that this is very first operating system release that is smaller than its predecessor.  The memory footprint is about half that of Vista, very close to XP’s footprint.

Further, Microsoft worked with its hardware and software partners to make sure that all the drivers were in place for thousands of machines prior to the launch of Windows 7. Evidently, this had not happened with Vista’s launch, and was responsible for many an unhappy experience for Vista users when it launched.

Although many writers and bloggers report that they were able to carry out a simple upgrade from Vista to Windows 7 (XP users must do a fresh clean install rather than an upgrade), my own experience is that carrying out a fresh install even on Vista machines delivers a much more reliable result. I was concerned about the time needed to carry out a fresh install but Windows 7 features a really neat tool called Easy Transfer that carried forward all my files, documents, tweaks, favourites, cookies, etc from my Vista installation to the new installation.

One performance benefit we can all enjoy from Windows 7 is much longer battery life. The operating system shuts down the bits of the system that are not in use – for example, your network connections are shut down when you are not connected, and this saves battery power.  An added benefit is that overall power consumption on Windows 7 is lower, enabling you to have a lower carbon footprint.  Allan Paterson, chief information officer of the government of the Isle of Man, found that he could replace his entire PC infrastructure with Vista machines and pay for the investment within 18 months just from savings in his energy bill. Well, Windows 7 just improved that particular business case.

Compatibility

One of the biggest reasons why businesses abstained from Vista adoption was the widespread concern that older XP and other Windows applications failed to run in Vista.  Windows 7 (only on Windows 7 Professional and higher versions) takes away that problem altogether through the use of a desktop virtualisation technique that delivers an XP mode. Of course, your machine needs hardware virtualisation support on your CPU – note that on some machines this feature is turned off by default and you will need to enable it in the BIOS of the machine. An additional note: Virtual XP acts like a PC in its own right and you should really consider having a separate anti-virus installation for this OS.

Mobile distributed workforce

Information workers are increasingly likely to be out and about in different office locations, with customers, or even doing their work at home. Windows 7 provides some super support for mobile workers. For example, a feature called DirectAccess allows users to connect securely to a corporate network. If this feels like VPN to you, it is. The difference is that the network connection is established in the background without any user interaction. So wherever you are, your machine can make a connection to your corporate server without you having to do anything.

Windows 7 tracks your location presence across domains and networks and configures itself to match the domain you are in. So, for example, at the office, it picks the office printer as the default printer, whereas at home, it offers you the home printer as default. No more printing to the wrong machine.

The OS is able to take advantage of BranchCache, a technique available on Windows Server 2008 R2 that copies content from your main office content servers and caches that content at branch office locations, enabling computers at the branch office to access the content locally, rather than over the WAN. This seamlessly lowers bandwidth constraints, but it also speeds up Windows Search, which is now more effective than on any previous version of Windows, as it is optimised for running on simpler hardware and with faster delivery of search information.

Many government servants – the type that leave laptops on train and taxis with zero protection of their contents – are going to thank Microsoft for a superior implementation of Bitlocker encryption on Windows 7. Bitlocker encrypts all the data on the hard drive, plus a new feature called Bitlocker to Go extends the encryption to external hard drives and USB memory.  Only CDs and DVDs don’t come under the protection regime of BitLocker – again, government servants and secret agents, please note...

Future-proof?

Has Microsoft done enough with Windows 7? Julie Larson-Green, corporate vice president Windows Experience at Microsoft certainly thinks so: “We have simplified everyday tasks so that you can do the things you want to do.” To do this, Larson-Green’s team sifted through millions of pieces of data on how people use computers. “We listened and listened to our customers,” is how she puts it.

This relentless focus on customer-driven design is typical of Microsoft’s better products. But it also makes me wonder if Microsoft is driving innovation in the right direction if its focus is on what customers want. Most of the time, customers want more of what they already have, faster and for less money. But they rarely have the vision or perspective to drive new innovation through.

Clayton Christenson’s ground-breaking book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, pointed out that market leaders are better at sustaining innovation which improves existing products, rather than disruptive innovation which creates new product types and markets. With all the talk of customer-centric product development, the launch of Windows 7 seems less and less about disruptive innovation. At a time, when cloud computing and mobile platforms seem to be defining a new direction for computing, has Microsoft missed the bigger picture with Windows 7?

It’s not as if Microsoft is not fully engaged in battle for the new world of computing, against the likes of Google and Apple. It has a new mobile platform, cloud services for consumers and businesses alike, the forthcoming Azure platform for on-line services deployment, and so on.  Yet little mention was made at the launch of how Windows 7 supports this new paradigm. 

I suspect the full story is still to be rolled out. Between Windows 7 its server counterpart Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft has added a few key features such as DirectAccess, Offline Domain Join, Active Directory Management over Web Services, Network Access Protection, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, and so on, which allow Microsoft to run your corporate computing environment in its datacentre, while letting users securely connect to that environment from the Windows 7 machines.

So my reading of the situation is that there will be another story on a future day on cloud computing, and how existing Windows 7 users have fully secure access to all that infrastructure. But for now, Microsoft simply wants to put Vista behind it and get on with what the customer wants.

Keep the customer satisfied – Windows 7 has the means to do so. Happy birthday to my daughter, and to Windows.