Seven high points of Windows 7

What a long ride it's been for Microsoft's popular OS. Support for Windows 7 ends today, making this a good time to look at some of its highs and lows over the years.

windows 7 logo in the rear view mirror
pan xiaozhen modified by IDG Comm. / Microsoft (CC0)

Today Microsoft issues its final free security update for Windows 7, putting an end to that operating system's decade.

To remember that service — a retirement party but without the cloyingly sweet cake and cheap gold watch — Computerworld selected seven highlights of Windows 7. While the seven do not pretend to trace Windows 7's history, they illustrate the influence and impact of the OS.

Here's to Windows 7. Raise a glass, for cryin' out loud.

It salvaged Microsoft's reputation after the Vista debacle

The numbers say it all.

Windows Vista, the 2006 replacement for Windows XP, topped out at 20% of all Windows versions in October 2009. Even though the OS it followed was long in the tooth — XP was nearly twice the age of a typical version when it was supplanted — Vista struggled to put a dent in its forerunner's share.

Windows XP still accounted for 75% of all Windows activity when Vista peaked.

Windows 7 drove down Vista's share toot sweet: In 18 months, Vista's share of all Windows had fallen to 11.5%. Users couldn't wait to rid themselves of Vista.

But then, what would you expect of an OS that fostered a class-action lawsuit?

The three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar snafu

An oversight — so said Microsoft — with Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) cost the company €561 million ($732 million at the time) when the European Union's anti-trust regulators fined the firm for omitting a browser choice feature.

The March 2013 decision by EU officials — the first time regulators there punished a company for shirking an antitrust agreement — ultimately stemmed from a 2007 complaint by rival Opera Software, which alleged that Microsoft manipulated the battle for browser share by tying Internet Explorer (IE) to Windows. Two years later, Microsoft agreed to show European users of Windows a "browser ballot," a screen that displayed download links to other browsers, including Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Opera's namesake.

But Microsoft failed to show that ballot to users of Windows 7 SP1 for some 14 months, from May 2011 until July 2012. More than 15 million users did not see the ballot as they should have, the EU charged.

In mid-2012, Microsoft admitted the goof and apologized, even as it downplayed the problem, saying it had been purely a "technical error" and blaming an engineering team.

Microsoft failed to disclose the snafu in the self-certified compliance reports it was required to submit to EU authorities.

In fact, Microsoft had ignored a user who reported the omission of the browser ballot in Windows 7 SP1. That user had queried support representatives in March 2011, a month after the launch of SP1 and two months before the start of the span during which regulators claimed Microsoft had scratched the ballot, saying, "I do not see the options for the browser choice." Although a support engineer replied to the user in the online forum, he paid no notice to the question of the ballot's whereabouts.

SKU insanity

Microsoft tried to hang onto the netbook market for a while longer with Windows 7 Starter, one of a ballooning number of SKUs (stock-keeping units) segregating the OS.

Starter, which had been preceded by same-named versions on both Windows XP and Vista, was meant to service the netbook market, the name for the smaller, less capable, and most importantly, cheaper notebook computers that juiced PC sales after their 2007 debut. Windows XP Starter and Windows Vista Starter had been sold only in a small number of markets outside the U.S.; Windows 7 Starter was sold domestically, however.

(Microsoft kept calling these systems "small notebooks," eschewing the "netbook" nomenclature for some reason.)

By the time of Windows 7's late-2009 launch, netbooks were plainly converging with standard small and light notebooks and/or sub-notebooks (another name for another category, or sub-category). Microsoft acknowledged that, at least to some extent, by dropping the three-applications-at-a-time restriction from Windows 7 Starter that had been imposed on XP's and Vista's versions.

Other omissions and limitations remained, however. Windows 7 Starter left out the "Aero" graphic user interface (GUI) that was Windows 7's most visible feature, omitted support for DVD playback and did not provide the ability to change the desktop background. (What?)

Starter was also a signal that Microsoft still held a more-is-better belief when it came to fragmenting an OS into multiple versions, or SKUs. Windows 7, like its Vista forerunner, came in six: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate. (Vista had used Business rather than Professional.)

Because Windows XP also featured half a dozen SKUs — although the versions were different in several cases — Microsoft pushed six SKUs from 2001, XP's launch, through 2017, Vista's retirement. From 2012 on, however, Microsoft pared Windows to three with Windows 8 (four if you counted Windows RT, which no one should) and maintained that number, at least at the beginning, with Windows 10 (we're counting Home, Pro and Enterprise). Since 10's launch, though, Microsoft has loosened its belt, expanding the SKUs with options like Windows 10 Pro Workstation and Windows 10 S, even as it tightened said strip of leather by dropping something-for-everyone SKUs like Windows 10 Mobile and Windows 10 Mobile Enterprise.

Belly up to the bar

Windows 7 boosted the size of the taskbar and added several elements that remain to this day in its successor, 10.

Microsoft beefed up the taskbar's vertical dimension by 33% — when using the by-default large icon and labels option — from Windows Vista, and also expanded the width of the active application tiles as well as the icons for pinned apps.

Features like jump lists — click on the taskbar icon for Word, say, and a list of recently-opened documents appears — pinning and thumbnails (admittedly introduced in Vista but made larger and interactive in Windows 7) have proven durable enough to last through multiple OS generations.

For a blast from the past, check out this blog about the Windows 7 taskbar that was posted almost a year before the operating system's release. It was authored by Steven Sinofsky, at the time one of the development heads for the OS. (Later, Sinofsky became president of the Windows Division, where he became the public face of Windows 8, the heir to 7 that bombed.)

The end of an era

Windows 7 was Microsoft's last stable OS.

For a bit more than a decade, Windows 7 remained fixed, steadfast, unvarying, enduring. According to Microsoft's model, we'll never see Windows like that again, not on personal computers. (Windows 10 LTSC may be meant to stay static for 10 years, but it's not suited for general PC purposes.)

Windows 7 sported just a single service pack (SP), the cumulative roll-ups released at irregular intervals, that was issued in February 2011, about 16 months after the OS's debut. But although Windows 7 SP1 contained some changes, they were all under the hood; nothing visible to users was altered.

Much the same could be said for a subsequent platform update, a February 2013 release focused on graphics and imaging components and including Internet Explorer 10 (IE10). Meanwhile, Windows 10 morphs every 12 months if enterprise customers are lucky (and the 2019 major-minor pattern continues), every six months if they're not.

Post-retirement patches step into daylight

Microsoft believed commercial customers were so enamored of Windows 7 — and would hold onto the OS in such numbers — that for the first time the company publicly unveiled a program to provide post-retirement security updates. That was a significantly different approach than the company has used before as an OS nears it end times.

Called Extended Support Updates (ESU) and revealed in September 2018 — a year and a half prior to Windows 7's expiration — the program focused on volume-licensing customers, its largest and most important patrons. Those businesses would be able to purchase support in one-year increments for up to three years, with prices doubling in the second year, doubling again in the third. Customers with subscriptions to Windows 10 would receive a discount.

(Near the last minute — in October 2019 — Microsoft caved to small businesses and said it would also sell ESU to customers who did not have existing volume licensing plans in place.)

What was remarkable about ESU wasn't its existence, but that Microsoft was so public about it.

The firm has sold post-retirement programs before, notably when Windows XP neared its retirement. But those deals were clouded in secrecy, with mysterious — and negotiable — price points. Prior to Windows XP's 2014 exit from support, Microsoft sold "custom support agreements," or CSAs, to its larger customers. But buying CSA was a completely-behind-the-scenes process done on a company-by-company basis, with virtually no public information about the program nor price lists.

That allowed Microsoft to dramatically raise CSA prices in late 2012 and 2013, then turn around and slash them just days before XP's retirement.

Don't it always seem to go..., you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone

The world-turned-upside-down shock of Windows 10 — its continual updating most notably — did more than anything else to elevate Windows 7's long-term reputation. Faced with the jolt of Windows 10, its predecessor came off looking that much more composed.

At the risk of being rejoined with an "OK, boomer," and knowing that nostalgia can backlight even incompetence with an artificial glow, Computerworld proposes that Windows 7 was what an OS should be, serviced as an OS ought to be, useful like an OS better be.

Much of that stems from the habits that Microsoft force-fed customers. Updates should be discrete so that individual patches can be postponed or rejected outright; feature additions should arrive only after years-long intervals to maximize learning "expense;" the OS should not transmit vast quantities of telemetric and diagnostic data to Redmond's servers. And so on. But Microsoft upturned all of that in a single swoop, unlike the gradualism of Windows' past.

No wonder there was resistance from enterprise customers, who on the whole valued continuity and tradition. But what they were objecting to was not Windows 10 per se — from the start the OS was widely praised on its merits — but instead Microsoft's changing policies of servicing. Where features were extensively criticized — such as 10's data hoovering — they were integral to those policies' execution (at least in Microsoft's mind), not integral to the OS as an OS.

That that has been the case can be confirmed by looking at the most substantial changes Microsoft has made to Windows 10 since its mid-2015 launch. Those changes have largely been made to the servicing policies, not to the OS itself.

For these reasons, Computerworld wagers that Windows 7 will be long viewed as peak enterprise OS and remembered, fairly or not, more fondly than if it had been succeeded by, say, Windows 9 in 2015.

(Where's Windows 8 in all this? Invisible, frankly. That OS was an even bigger dud than Vista for corporate customers.)

Things have gone this way before, of course. Windows is famous, in fact, for its good-bad cadence of editions. Windows XP was good, Vista was not; Windows 7 good, Windows 8 not. Here, however, Microsoft has boosted Windows 7's standing not by creating a substandard edition as follow-up but by changing practices and policies of that successor.

Microsoft recognizes what it has done. That's clear from the modifications it's made to Windows 10, such as lengthening the support lifespan and reducing the number of true feature upgrades; it's shifted that operating system closer to the model of ... Windows 7.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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