In sharp contrast to past development efforts, Microsoft has kept its plans for the next version of Windows, now officially designated Windows 7, under tight wraps. At its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles this week, Microsoft finally went public and showed off a surprisingly polished product the promises to be a significant improvement on Vista, though it avoids any radical departures from the design of its much-maligned predecessor.
I’m nowhere near ready to offer a review of the Windows 7 “pre-beta” distributed at PDC. The features in this review are as described by Microsoft since I have not had an opportunity to test them. I am running Windows 7 on a Dell XPS M1330 laptop supplied by Microsoft and will be reporting on how well the features live up to their promise as I learn more by using the new software.
For those of you with long technology memories, Windows 7 is conceptually a bit like Windows 98. Windows 95 was a revolutionary overhaul of Windows 3 but was badly flawed. Win 98 did not change 95 dramatically, but made it work far better.
Win 7 is designed to avoid two problems that made the 2007 launch of Vista a mess. First, in the years and months leading up to the release of Vista, Microsoft had talked freely about features, including a completely new file system, that it was ultimately unable to deliver (The rule, says Senior Vice-President Steven Sinofsky, who heads the Windows development effort, was “think it, say it.”) As a result, reviewers such as myself and other folks who followed the progress of Vista closely were disappointed when the product finally came out and reacted negatively. By saying almost nothing until developers were sure which features would make the final cut, Microsoft has avoided this raising and dashing of expectations.
Second, and more substantively, Microsoft desperately wants to avoid the situation faced by early adopters of Vista when they discovered that large numbers of programs and devices that worked just fine with Windows XP failed with the new software. This time, the mantra is “if it works with Vista it will work with 7.”
There is risk in this dedication to compatibility. Windows carries a burden of legacies that stretches all the way back to DOS. It is one reason why the code is so huge and complex. It is why there always seem to be three or more ways of doing anything in Windows. And it helps explain the persistence of annoyances and, worse, security flaws, in version after version, despite dedicated efforts to get rid of them. One reason that Apple’s OS X is cleaner, simpler, and more reliable than Windows is that Apple has to aversion to changes every few years that render large chunks of the installed base of hardware and software obsolete. For better or worse, Microsoft doesn’t work that way and is more reluctant than ever to break sharply with the past after the unhappy experience of Vista.
As a result, don’t look for a lot that is dramatically new in Windows 7. The user interface is very similar to Vista, but somewhat simpler and cleaner. One nice feature to help keep it clean is a tool that lets you control the display of icons in the “systray,” the area at the right end of the task bar at the bottom of the screen. It seems that just about every program you install wants to put something in the systray and usually there is no way to hide them without disabling the services they represent. Windows 7 gives you control over the clutter.
Users will also gain control over the sorts of messages that programs represented in the systray are allowed to pop onto the screen. Maybe I’ll finally get Windows to stop telling me that my USB mouse could somehow perform faster. Similarly, Windows 7 includes finer control over those User Account Control popups that ask you permission before performing the most mundane of tasks. Under Vista, your only choice is to put up with the nagging or turn it off entirely, possibly suppressing a warning about something truly dangerous that might happen. The windows 7 version of UAC is designed to give much finer-grained control over when permission is required.
A major point of emphasis in Windows 7 is much simplified support for home networks, an area where Microsoft has lagged far behind Apple. Home networks have long been a bit of an afterthought in Windows and setting one up and using it effectively has required most of the skill of a trained network administrator. My guess is that while most multi-computer homes have networks of some sort, relatively few of them are used for anything beyond the sharing of an Internet connection.
The new notion in Windows 7 is the HomeGroup which is supposed to make it much easier to share resources on different computers within a household. For example, Windows 7 can automatically search across all the computers within a HomeGroup. A completely redesigned Windows Media Player will be able to consolidate a library from music stored on different machines around the house (of course iTunes users have been able to do that for several years, but we’ll take progress where it comes). In addition a computer used both in the office and at home will be able to log into a Windows domain at work and, when it come homes, connect to a HomeGroup and pull such tricks as automatically switching default printers from those in the office to one at home.
HomeGroup may be the most promising feature of Windows 7, but at this point I have more questions about it than answers. For example, it is not at all clear whether, or how, computers running Vista or even XP will be able to participate in a HomeGroup. This is critical because a lot of households are likely to comprise a mix of software for some time to come. A key test for me will be how easy HomeGroup makes it to install and use a networked printer, particularly one connected directly to the network through an Ethernet or wireless link; this has long been a daunting challenge on home networks.
One area where Microsoft is maintaining its reticence about Windows 7 is in the timing of its release. The only thing it has said officially is that it plans that the new OS would be out within three years of the release of the last version. Since Vista officially shipped in January, 2007, that would point to an early 2010 release. There have been rumors, however, that work is sufficiently ahead of schedule that a 2009 release is possible.
The next key milestone will be the more widespread availability of a beta version; Microsoft has not yet said whether it will follow the vista precedent of making the beta available to anyone brave enough to try it or whether it will limit distribution to a large but controlled group. I expect to see a beta early next year, perhaps in the first quarter. How well that beta goes, particularly the sorts of compatibility problems that arise as testers try Windows 7 on a myriad of software and hardware configurations, will determine the final release date.