Forget Windows 8: Give us Windows 7.8

A billion users don't have the right hardware to run Windows 8, even if they wanted to. Here's how Microsoft could give them the best of Windows 8

With Windows 8's public release tomorrow, Microsoft is poised to pull a belly flop of unprecedented proportions. After seeing the muddled mess that is Windows 8, an ever-increasing segment of the billion-plus Windows users worldwide will ask themselves, "What's next?" Most businesses have already decided they'll stick with Windows 7 -- once they complete the upgrades typically started just this year.

In Redmond, Microsoft is ignoring the public reaction to Windows 8, whose year-long public beta effort has shown us what we don't want. Instead, efforts are under way to bring us a Windows 9 festooned with more and prettier tiles, supersized Metro apps, deeper integration with social networks, the latest iPad app wannabes, support for traditional tablet and smartphone features, and four- and five-finger touch-and-swipe bells and whistles galore.

[ FREE DOWNLOAD: Windows 8 Deep Dive Report | Windows 8: The 10 biggest problems so far ]

[ Woody Leonhard explains why Windows 8 is so bad, part 1 and part 2. | InfoWorld's deathmatch review: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion. | Deploying Windows 8? Here's what you should know. | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

Microsoft needs to get real and bring us a better Windows 7 ASAP, even as it works on the more-Metro Windows 9 that's a good two or three years away. Call it Windows 7.8. The truth is that the new Windows 8 Desktop has some very cool features for those living in the "legacy" touch-insensitive, keyboard-and-mouse environment -- there's only a billion of us. Maybe Microsoft can make money by selling us an upgrade to what we already have: a Windows 7.8 that brings the key new Windows 8 Desktop features home to Windows 7.

Microsoft is doing the same thing with Windows Phone. When Windows Phone 8 is formally unveiled next week and the corresponding smartphones ship soon after, thousands of current Windows Phone 7.x users will be running obsolete hardware that can't be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. Microsoft is taking many of the key improvements in Windows Phone 8 and putting them in the Windows 7.8 upgrade for "legacy" Windows Phone users. Although Windows 8, unlike Windows Phone 8, will work on on "legacy" hardware, it's still a good model -- especially because Windows 8 runs so awkwardly on "legacy" hardware.

The effort involved in porting the improvements in Windows 8's Desktop to a Windows 7.8 shouldn't be all that great: The Windows 8 Desktop itself has gone through minuscule changes, and grafting Win8 apps onto Win7 ought to be little more than a job for a room full of interns over spring break. OK, it'll take slightly more effort, but it certainly wouldn't be as difficult as creating the features all over again or even building a Metro equivalent to GarageBand or iPhoto.

Windows 7.8 seems like low-hanging fruit with the potential for a significant sales bump for Microsoft, which sorely needs to get people to start buying Windows again.

Here are the features that Windows 7.8 should have:

Storage Spaces A new incarnation of Windows Home Server's old (and discontinued) Drive Extender technology, Storage Spaces maintains up-to-the-second mirrored copies of all your data, as long as you have two or more hard disks. If one of the disks should die, the data's still available, with nary a hiccup. Remove the dead disk, stick in a new disk that's at least as big as the one that died, wait an hour or so, and the mirrored backup continues -- and you don't have to touch a thing.

All the disks, internal or external, use one single drive letter (in Microsoft parlance, they're "virtualized"). If you run out of space, feed Storage Spaces a new disk, and it gets absorbed into the hard-disk Borg, using the same drive letter as all the others. If you have a handful of old 250GB disks hanging around that you really don't want to throw away, you can stick them in a storage pool and treat them as one big D: drive. If you still run out of space, add a new 2TB disk, and they all play happily together.

Data gets juggled and shuffled behind the scenes, with absolutely no need to copy, move, or otherwise mangle your data. No, it isn't RAID. No fancy hardware involved: Regular, old everyday hard disks, both internal and external, all work together.

It's the way hard disk storage should've been implemented decades ago. It works brilliantly. And Windows 7 needs the feature badly.

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