Windows 7 arrives: The time is finally ripe

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Reliability: A little help from friendsIn my previous analysis, I noted how Vista's architectural changes were mostly functional: improved power management, new I/O priority levels, delayed loading of services. However, despite a prolonged beta cycle, Vista shipped with a reputation for instability and general quirkiness. Much of this had to do with the poor state of Vista-compatible display and audio drivers. The drawn-out beta process and subsequent mad dash to RTM caught many independent hardware vendors flat-footed, with the resulting scramble to support the finished OS only adding to the product's poor first impression.

Two years later, the landscape looks quite different. The hardware community has fully caught up with Vista, and customers can now embrace the OS with confidence that it is generally as stable as Windows XP in most respects. Windows 7 benefits from this maturity by inheriting the Vista architecture almost unmodified -- the few tangible changes to the kernel mostly revolve around increasing multicore scalability and improving background service behavior. In this case, minimal change is a good thing.

So where does this leave Windows 7 in comparison to XP? Certainly in better shape than Vista was when it shipped. The Windows 7 pre-release code has been nothing if not stable, with many tech-savvy users now running it as their primary OS. That said, the new OS will still need to be thoroughly vetted before IT shops fully embrace it, and the old rule of thumb, "Wait for the first service pack," still applies.

Bottom line: Windows 7 benefits from the maturing of the Vista-era Windows ecosystem. As such, it fares better than its predecessor in terms of initial reliability and should quickly approach Windows XP levels of stability with the first 12 to 18 months of general availability.

Hardware compatibility: Time healsAs I noted under Reliability above, a lack of proper device driver support was the Achilles' heel that doomed Vista to early failure. Audio and video drivers, in particular, were a real nightmare under Vista, with the majority of Blue Screen of Death-type errors traceable directly to shoddy kernel mode coding by market leaders Nvidia and ATI (now AMD). And while these catastrophic system crashes weren't the only stability issues to impact pre-Service Pack Vista -- I personally suffered through more than my share of Registry corruption issues and showstopper plug-and-play bugs -- they served to reinforce the public's perception of Vista as an unreliable OS.

Things change. In the case of Vista, the hardware ecosystem eventually caught up with the OS. Most new PCs and devices provide excellent Vista support, with mature drivers that are stable and relatively full-featured. Likewise, the OS itself has stabilized, thanks to the release of two important service packs and a host of smaller hotfixes. And legendary culprit Nvidia seems to have learned its lesson from the Vista debacle. Nvidia has been actively engaged in the Windows 7 beta program, publishing a number of pre-release test drivers and generally following a very aggressive QA cycle.

The net result is that Windows 7 inherits a much more complete ecosystem, a clear advantage of preserving -- as opposed to replacing -- the Vista kernel architecture. As with Vista, many Windows XP drivers still work unmodified under Windows 7. And for those that do not, there is more than likely a corresponding Vista-specific version available that should work seamlessly under the newer Windows.

Microsoft is also making better use of its Windows Update site with Windows 7. In fact, the new Windows ships with a much smaller library of device drivers on disk, relying instead on Windows Update to provide the primary conduit for obtaining nongeneric drivers from third parties (Nvidia and Intel area already making good use of this mechanism). And while there will no doubt be exceptions, they'll likely be isolated to legacy devices for which the original vendor is unwilling or unable to provide a Windows Vista/Windows 7-compatible driver.

Bottom line: The days of uneven hardware support under Vista are over. Windows 7 inherits a well-rounded ecosystem of mature drivers that should enable it to achieve Windows XP (current generation) levels of initial customer satisfaction.

Microsoft software compatibility: Sweet possibilitiesWhen I originally examined the issue of Microsoft software compatibility under Vista, I found no compelling advantage to running the nascent OS. Microsoft's Office team, perhaps sensing trouble on the horizon, wisely chose to fully implement Office System 2007 under both Windows XP and Vista. So when Vista ultimately stumbled out of the gate, the Office folks were able to insulate themselves from the fallout and turn the 2007 variant into yet another in a long line of successful releases.

In hindsight, would tighter Office 2007 integration with Windows Vista have helped the troubled OS? Perhaps. But the lack of significant new usability conventions in Vista would have limited the scope and depth of such integration. Simply put, there wasn't enough meat on the Vista bone to make it worth investing in the kind of exclusive tie-in features that might have helped drive customer adoption of Vista.

Fast-forward a couple of years and you're looking at a very different horizon. With Windows 7, Microsoft is providing a number of compelling new UI paradigms, including a revamped Taskbar with some truly must-have features, like Jump Lists and Aero Peek. And based on my analysis of an early preview version of Office 2010, the application side of the Microsoft house seems to make good use of these new conventions to deliver unique value for customers who adopt the company's new OS along with its new productivity suite.

Of course, Office 2010 will still run on Windows XP and Windows Vista. The Office team would never be foolish enough to tie itself exclusively to any unproven version of Windows. It's just that, for the first time since the debut of Windows 95, Microsoft finally has a "works better together" message it can actually sell to the masses. While these additional integration features might not be enough to convince you, the fact that they exist certainly serves as an incentive.

Bottom line: Windows 7's new UI paradigm provides a number of unique capabilities that Microsoft's application folks can tap into to make their products more compelling. As such, it offers a significant integration advantage versus Windows XP and even Vista.

Third-party application compatibility: Operation virtualization The final pillar of Vista rejection has always been its spotty support for third-party applications. The combination of UAC and a newer, more complex kernel meant that many legacy applications broke under Vista. And while the blame for at least some of these failures could be laid at the feet of the ISVs -- for assuming their products would always run in an Administrator-level security context -- the fact that they broke under Vista, yet worked just fine under Windows XP, ensured that the black stain of incompatibility was Microsoft's to bear alone.

With Windows 7, Microsoft's third-party application support has improved significantly. Not only has Microsoft benefited from vendors updating their software to work with Vista's new security model, they've also had the opportunity to better diagnose where legacy Windows XP applications failed and to write new compatibility shims for the more troublesome characters. And for the truly problematic programs, Microsoft has an ace in the hole: Virtual Windows XP Mode (VXP), which provides a fully virtualized Windows XP image for running these applications in their native environment.

I've written at length about my misgivings toward VXP. For starters, I would have preferred a solution based on Microsoft's App-V application virtualization platform, if for no other reason than it would have allowed legacy applications to run with full fidelity, as opposed to screen scraped from a Remote Desktop Protocol session (the core of the VXP integration model). Still, VXP is compelling in that it provides a fully licensed copy of Windows XP that you can run alongside your Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate license. And it's free.

Bottom line: Windows XP remains the Gold Standard for application compatibility, a fact Microsoft has fully embraced with Windows 7. Customers can expect a better compatibility experience with the new Windows, and when they do encounter an application that refuses to behave under the native runtime, they can always fall back to Virtual Windows XP Mode.

Developer tools support: The pause that refreshesWhen Windows Vista shipped, Microsoft hoped it would usher in a new era of managed code, and the company updated its developer tools accordingly. For example, it shipped Visual Studio 2008 with a host of tools and templates for enabling cross-OS development of .Net applications, secure in the belief that the client landscape would soon be populated by managed-code capable systems running the .Net Framework.

Of course, things didn't work out quite the way Microsoft planned. And while the company's developer tools remain as popular as ever, most professionals are using them to write ASP.Net applications or legacy code in the aging Visual C++ language. After all, who wants to maintain a Windows Presentation Foundation application that requires the deployment of 250MB of supporting framework code before it can draw its first window? Just ask the Paint.Net folks -- it's not a pretty picture.

So Microsoft's utopian dream of moving away from the Win32 API once and for all died with Vista. But of course .Net remains very much the ultimate goal. Like Vista before it, Windows 7 ships with the latest incarnation of the Framework -- specifically, Version 3.5 with Service Pack 1 (Vista shipped with Version 3.0). However, unlike with Vista, Microsoft is actively downplaying the whole "next generation" storyline in favor of emphasizing Windows 7's improved legacy compatibility. Given Vista's woes, you can't really blame Redmond for trying to shore up the base.

If there's a silver lining to all of this, it may be lurking inside two of Windows 7's accessories. The Paint and WordPad programs both sport Microsoft's Ribbon UI, which is now accessible to developers as a component they can reuse in their own applications. Thus, depending on how successful Windows 7 is in displacing XP, you may see a surge in .Net development activity as ISVs scramble to remake their products with the new Windows look and feel.

Bottom line: Windows 7 is no better and no worse than Vista in terms of developer tools support. However, given the popularity of the beta version, Windows 7's ultimate success in driving the post-XP migration may allow it to achieve what Vista couldn't: making .Net the new development standard for Windows applications.

Future proofing: Tuned for multicoreWhen I last looked at the issue of future proofing, I came down in favor of Windows XP for several reasons. First, there was the tepid response to Vista. Hardware and software vendors would never abandon XP until a clear majority of systems had moved off of the OS. Then there was the fact that Microsoft was (wisely) porting much of its new .Net framework technologies back to the older Windows, essentially negating any real advantage of deploying Vista for .Net development. Finally, I pointed to the coming release of Windows 7 and how customers could safely skip Vista and wait until Microsoft delivered something better.

Two years later, and I'm typing this on a netbook running one of the RTM escrow builds of Windows 7. I certainly could have installed Windows XP on this machine instead of its newer sibling. However, the hassle of patching, tuning, and hunting down drivers just to get XP to boot on this newfangled hardware would have made the effort difficult to justify. By contrast, Windows 7 simply worked from the get-go. With few exceptions, its default configuration was entirely functional.

I have a feeling this same scene is playing out across the IT landscape. Shops weary of patching and tweaking XP to get it working reliably on modern hardware are looking at Windows 7 and thinking it might just be the version that finally lures them away from their legacy environment. After all, there's something to be said for convenience. And when it comes to seamlessly embracing new hardware technologies, Windows 7 is far better positioned than creaky old XP.

This latter point is perhaps best observed in how Windows 7 handles multicore systems. Our testing shows that the revamped Windows 7 kernel scales better across multiple CPUs than XP, thanks in large part to the extra tuning Microsoft did to improve thread-locking performance in multi-CPU environments. It's a tangible advantage, one that will become more relevant as CPU core counts continue to rise over the coming 24 to 36 months. If you're on the fence about Windows 7, consider the future proofing argument. It may be the push you need to help you finally kick the XP habit.

Bottom line: Windows XP was born into a world of single-CPU systems with memory capacities measured in the megabytes. Windows 7 arrives at a time when dual and even quad-core systems are the norm, and 2GB to 3GB of RAM is considered a good starting point. Simply put, Windows 7 is better positioned to leverage new hardware technologies and to support future application and workload growth over the long haul.

There's no going backWindows 7 is faster than Windows Vista, but not by much -- and it's still slower than XP. It's less secure than Vista in its default configuration, but it's also light-years ahead of both of its older siblings when it comes to usability. Reliability is up, as is compatibility, but these trends have more to do with an industry that is finally catching up with the Vista security and driver models than with any new Windows 7 capability in particular.

In fact, outside of the reworked Taskbar (which is a killer feature), there's very little truly new about Windows 7. Rather, it's the culmination of an all-out, no-holds-barred, failure-is-not-an-option attempt by Microsoft to salvage the nearly five years it invested in designing and implementing the Windows Vista architecture. In this regard, Windows 7 is really more like Vista R2 -- Microsoft's attempt to take a second pass at the product and finally get it right.

If I were to score this comparison like a boxing match, I'd have to call it a draw, with the final nod going to Windows 7 if for no other reason than it drives the existing technology base forward, while opening the platform to new and more powerful hardware. IT shops that choose to adopt Windows 7 will likely not be disappointed. It's a solid-all-around product that matches up well with today's PC landscape. Windows 7 is still very much Vista at its core, and no amount of tweaking or UI paint will change that fact. But Microsoft finally did get it right.

Hats off to Windows XP -- it had a great run. But change is in the air, and it smells like Windows 7.

This story, "Windows 7 arrives: The time is finally ripe" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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