There is a lot of bad blood this year between Microsoft and Apple. Apple has aggressively launched a negative political-style marketing campaign against the PC giant. While this advertising blitz – you know, the “I’m a PC/I’m a Mac” shtick – has been well executed and very entertaining, it’s also had an uneXPected side-effect as well. In short, it’s lit a huge fire under the thousand or so people developing Microsoft’s next operating system, Windows 7, and for the first time in over a decade, they’re properly focused on slapping Apple upside the head.
Much like Apple did with UNIX when the life of the company was on the line for OSX, Microsoft has taken Vista and made massive changes in the user eXPerience from how easy it is to use to how reliable it is and how well it integrates with the Web, including non-Microsoft sites and utilities (like iTunes). Of course, one disadvantage Microsoft has is that it’s talking about most of this during the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) this week, and clearly Apple will see what was done and will have a little time to respond.
Nonetheless, Windows 7 looks to be a promising contender, as compared with the cluster-you-know-what that is Vista. Let’s walk through some of the changes it introduces.
Performance Windows Vista was much slower on the same hardware than Windows XP was. With Windows 7, there likely will still be some problems in terms of incompatibilities with hardware that was designed for XP too. However, Windows 7 has been reworked to address the core problems that made Vista slower and has been enhanced to make better use of current hardware and scream on the PC hardware that will be coming next year. An example of the XP problem is that in Vista, open windows consume more memory for each window that is open until memory runs out. With Windows 7, each Window you open consumes no more memory, and memory utilization simply doesn’t increase appreciably regardless of the windows you open which speeds up the platform substantially. An example of the latter problem is that, during boot sequences, all previous versions of Windows loaded things linearly. A slow-loading driver or application could cause the boot time to extend to painful lengths. In Windows 7 though, these same things load in parallel, so if something is loading slowly other things will continue to load in the background. It doesn’t fix the application or driver that is slow to load, but it does make it much less of a bottleneck.
Finally, Windows 7 was designed with Solid State drives and multi-core processors in mind, because they are a big part of the ecosystem while the product is being developed. Vista didn’t work that well with SD drives in particular, and Windows 7 should be much better as a result.
Targeting Apple One of the biggest aggravations with the hardware OEMs is that while Windows Vista had iLife-like capabilities, they were neither obvious nor particularly distinctive. While Windows 7 won’t be going after Garage Band, the other core elements of iLife and iTunes are clearly being targeted. Apple’s historic failing is interoperability with third parties: Neither iLife nor iTunes works well with third-party services or applications. Windows 7 is designed to not only do what both do, but what they don’t do in terms of interoperability, and interoperate very well. For instance, Windows 7’s media player will pull from iTunes libraries of non-DRM music and from the largest variety of music types it has ever embraced. In addition, it can take that music and push it out to media extenders, networked media players (like the Sonos), game systems like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and even other PCs. This is very much like the “embrace and extend” strategy that initially made Office successful and it is only limited by Apple’s unwillingness to license their DRM, something that may change as European Governments focus on forcing Apple to open up or Apple naturally moves to non-DRM technologies.
For pictures and movies, you’ll also be able to quickly drop them into blogging environments, social networking sites and a variety of photo sites near automatically and, once set up, with a minimum of clicks. In addition, cameras, all of which are non-Microsoft, show up as applications under Windows 7 in the tool bar and can be easily connected to related applications which show up in aggregated menus and can be initially set by the camera manufacturer.
User Interface Microsoft has also cleaned up the user eXPerience a great deal and the simplification of the taskbar is only the start. This OS is multi-touch enabled, but will be limited to ten fingers at once and the hardware implementation, which will likely take it down to one or two fingers depending on the technology used. Evidently, massive multi-touch pulls a lot of power which may keep it from some laptops at the start. Then again, it was interesting to note that in terms of intellectual property risk Microsoft indirectly cited prior art and they did have touch on PCs and PDAs before Apple did, suggesting that the company clearly believes it can push back if Apple challenges here.
The taskbar is much simplified with the icons stacking and permanently in place doing double duty as launch icons and as a way to manage applications that have already been launched. This is something you have to see to really appreciate, but it both simplifies the work of current XP and current Vista users and is, for once, more advanced than the Apple equivalent. This once again showcases the increased competition between the two platforms that likely will eventually benefit both groups as Apple responds to this threat.
Reliability In Windows 7, much like was done in a more primitive way in Windows XP; there is an automated self-correcting process for software that was hard coded for older versions of Windows. In most cases, an application that won’t install or crashes on load will automatically be analyzed and corrections automatically applied, or applied with the help of the user, so that no help call needs to be made and the problem is repaired in a few short minutes. For example, in the case of an application that was hard coded to look for Windows Vista or Windows XP, after two crashes, a shim will automatically be applied that should force the application to look at Windows 7 just like it would the OS it was written for, effectively correcting the fault.
For applications that won’t install for the same reason, the user is engaged and asked which platform the application was written for so the right shims can be applied for the same result. Current applications evidently don’t report back reliably what platform they were hard coded to require which is why this can’t yet be fully automated.
A maintenance release has a number of advantages. At its core it’s typically a platform that has been tested in market, in this case Vista, and on the edges are refinements that correct and enhance the offering to levels that can’t be done in an initial release. This is because the initial release is focused largely on making the major changes required and there isn’t yet enough known to determine what buyers will want after they see what has resulted for these adjustments. In terms of Vita, the initial release missed on a number of key points from performance to reliability and compatibility, resulting in the most successful counterattack from Apple ever. The result appears to be a maintenance release that redefines the class and creates what feels, initially, to be a whole new class of offering. One, that is, that not only has the feel of a major release in terms of improvements, but also the painlessness of a minor release in terms of compatibility, usability and reliability. Many I should have simply said that Windows 7 will be what Vista should have always been. I think it will be that, and with changes that couldn’t have happened in 2007, something much more. Look for this product after mid-next year and, unless something drastic happens, eXPect it to change your perception of Windows as an operating system in general. Still, for Windows 7 to present a real threat to Apple, the one part that remains undone is assuring a quality overall user eXPerience, and much of Microsoft’s success here will still be left up to PC OEMs to secure. Several are attempting to step up to this challenge, but we won’t know if these providers will make enough strides in this regard until the offering launches. It is in this last part that most of the execution risk resides, and where Apple, as of press time, remains well in the lead. In short, Microsoft, this time, appears to be doing their part to deliver an operating system consumers will actually want. Now it’s up to their strategic allies, PC OEMs, to close the gap and truly take the battle back to Apple.