Was Windows 7 worth saving XP for?

Whether Windows 7 lives up to expectations will remain a heated debate in the months to come. Early looks show promise, but when it comes to engineering mass disappointment, few can do it to the degree that Microsoft can and has in iterations past. Remember how discouraging Windows Vista was? After five years of revolutionary promises, Microsoft dumped the honking mess on the world in fall 2007, complete with convoluted user interfaces, annoying security nags, and steep hardware requirements that forced needless PC upgrades -- all wrapped up in a variety of flavors whose differences seemed unnecessarily confusing.

At the time, we at InfoWorld kept hearing quiet grumblings from IT about the new Windows, but the prevailing attitude about Vista trended toward resignation. In a nutshell, we kept hearing users say, "After all, Microsoft controls Windows and we have no choice but to accept what it delivers." Worse, most of the major analyst firms fawned over the fledgling Vista, leaving many to second-guess their doubts.

[ Relive the furor over Windows Vista and the passion behind the "Save XP" campaign. | Get the full scoop on the new Windows 7 with InfoWorld's "Windows 7: The essential guide" compendium and the 21-page "Windows 7 Deep Dive" PDF report. ]

Microsoft, of course, denied loudly that there was anything wrong, with its execs and PR minions claiming repeatedly that Vista was the result of world-beating engineering and extensive customer research, with that special soul-hocking that usually only (ironically, Mac-using) ad agencies can do with a straight face. (To add insult to injury, Microsoft is about to launch an ad campaign claiming that Windows 7 is not only based on listening to its customers -- that's why Microsoft made the "we fixed Vista" changes -- but also that Windows 7 was designed by its customers, which I suppose is where the new taskbar and Aero Peek functions came from, not the Mac OS X Dock and Exposé app they suspiciously mimic. Hey, Microsoft fooled the New York Times about this, so maybe it thinks it can fool you, too.)

Out of that "we really don't like Vista but feel hopeless about it" atmosphere grew InfoWorld's "Save XP" campaign, aimed at calling out the miasma that was Vista and rallying both IT and end-users to stand up to Microsoft and demand that Windows XP be kept available until Microsoft could deliver a worthwhile replacement. More than 210,000 of you signed our "Save XP" petition demanding that XP remain on the market. Those same analyst firms that touted Vista in late 2007 suddenly began criticizing it by spring 2008, when the "Save XP" campaign got wide media coverage. While Microsoft made little public mention of your voices, and CEO Steve Ballmer ignored your petition when we delivered it, it came up with a convolution called the "XP downgrade" that has in fact maintained XP's availability on the market in parallel with Vista.

So you won.

But the question remains: Now that Windows 7 is officially shipping, was it worth saving Windows XP for?

My answer: Yes -- but. Yes, Windows 7 is not the disaster that Vista was. But Windows 7 is no home run, either. I can't imagine people camping out for it or even getting excited in large numbers, as they would for a new iPhone or Mac OS X. It will also be interesting to see how many will "downgrade" Windows 7 to XP, an option made available for some editions of Windows 7 until April 23, 2011, for those not yet ready to make the Windows 7 leap. (A Hewlett-Packard exec told me he expects many if not most businesses to "downgrade" Windows 7 to XP through much of 2010. And he expects almost no one to buy Vista after today.)

The bottom line is that Windows 7 is better than Vista, and in many ways, it's technically better than Windows XP. Still, I'm not sure it's a necessary OS, and there are several reasons I won't make it my main OS. But if my company migrated from XP to Windows 7, I would not object, as I would have vehemently opposed any migration from XP to Vista. If my company had forced me to adopt Vista, I would be screaming for a Windows 7 upgrade to ease the pain.

Where Windows 7 delivers the goods Windows 7 corrects Vista's most egregious problem: a convoluted user interface that left many users in tears trying to do what had been simple work in XP. In Vista, you could have a half-dozen dialog boxes littering your screen just using the Personalize control panel, for example.

Windows 7 tones down the number of "are you sure?" security alerts from the User Access Control function -- and even lets you control the nag level. However, some experts view this nag-reduction functionality as a sure path to compromised security.

Windows 7 sets in place a multicore foundation that should matter increasingly as multicore PCs become the norm and applications are written accordingly. You won't likely experience that benefit for some years, but XP could never get you there.

[ Learn how to deploy Windows 7 in your organization with advice from InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese. | Follow the key Windows 7 developments through InfoWorld's ongoing coverage. ]

The new Windows 7 task bar -- even if it is "inspired" by Mac OS X's Dock -- and its companion Aero Peak feature (available only if you have the right graphics hardware and driver) -- inspired by Mac OS X's Exposé feature -- go a long way toward making it easy to run and navigate among multiple applications, essential for day-to-day operations. There are other UI improvements that -- once the applications you use are upgraded to support them -- are also compelling, such as jump lists (contextual menus on steroids) and task bar animations.

For IT, Windows 7's support (in some versions) for a single image in multilingual environments, as well as management capabilities such as better encryption setup and management through BitLocker and AppLocker, is welcome. Note that many of Windows 7's management and networking improvements, such as BranchCache and DirectAccess, require that you also upgrade your back-end Microsoft infrastructure, such as by using Windows Server 2008 R2.

Finally, the application incompatibilities that bedeviled Vista users seem to be largely handled by Windows 7.

Where Windows 7 falls flat But Windows 7 has some real drawbacks that temper any passion I might feel for it. The biggest downer is the new UI. Yes, the Aero "glass" stuff is cool, assuming you have compatible video hardware and drivers, but that eye candy wears off pretty fast. What I just can't accept is the contextual approach of the UI, where Windows hides most functions from you and guesses as to what you want. It makes me work too hard because Windows rarely knows what I'm looking for.

Worse, I've lost the "motor memory" method of working, where I can move my mouse to the right menu and select the desired option almost without looking. That's a real time-saver in XP and other menu-based OSes. Figuring out which icon means what, where it is, and how to find it if Windows didn't think I needed it really slows me down (as does figuring out how to turn menus back on where they're still supported).

[ Mac attack: Windows 7 versus Snow Leopard. | What Windows 7 has stolen from the Mac OS, and what Apple has stolen from Windows. ]

Microsoft is determined to ram that contextual UI approach down all our throats. It's not only standard in Windows but in Office and bundled Windows apps like Media Player; if you plan to remain with Windows, you'll simply have to get used to it. I can't, so I'm sticking with Mac OS X as my primary OS, and I still recommend desktop Linux's simpler interface that most business users can more easily adapt to if they must leave XP behind on their PCs.

I have to acknowledge that some people like the new ribbon-based contextual UI; for them, Windows 7's refined version is a real plus.

Once you get past the UI -- both the eye candy and the contextual approach -- Windows 7 doesn't bring a lot to the table that would make me want to invest in it. Its touch capabilities are a disappointment, and the "XP mode" approach to ensuring backward compatibility is clunky -- you're essentially running XP in isolation, limiting operations such as copy and paste.

And there's the ongoing issue of too many versions with hard-to-understand differences that will bedvil home users, small businesses, and even enterprise IT (which will know to pick just one but still face the reality that employees working at home on their own PCs could have any of several versions. That needless variety is compounded by the fact that some OS features, such as Aero Peek, work only if you have specific graphics hardware and drivers installed -- so companies will likely find that even with a standard version of Windows 7, their users will have different capabilities. That should be fun for tech support ("Is your graphics processor DirectX 9-compatible? Do you have a WDDM driver installed?" "Huh?").

Some of Windows 7's innovations are rip-offs of the Mac OS, which I already use. If you're not on a Mac, they'll hold more appeal for you. Two examples are "library" views (the equivalent of the Mac's "smart folders") and home groups -- though I find this allegedly friendly file-sharing technology harder to set up than the Mac's sharing.

"Save XP": A victory where the champagne is flat At the end of the day, Windows 7 is the OS Microsoft should have shipped instead of Vista, and we should all be excited today by a Windows 7 that is really compelling and innovative. But what we have is Vista R2.

Saving XP was the right thing to do, but I do wish that Microsoft had done a lot more than clean up Vista in the meantime. Windows 7 is a relief, but nothing to celebrate. I wanted champagne, but I got Alka-Seltzer.

Related stories

  • Windows 7: The essential guide
  • InfoWorld's Windows 7 Deep Dive PDF report
  • Windows 7 on multicore: How much faster?
  • Windows 7 RTM: The revenge of Windows Vista
  • The 7 deadly sins of Windows 7
  • Hands-on video guide to Windows 7
  • Video: The 20 top features in Windows 7
  • Ready for Windows 7? How to deploy it right
  • XP users: How to upgrade Windows 7
  • Find out if your PC can run Windows 7
  • Windows 7 touch: Dead on arrival
  • Windows 7 may mean fewer bargain netbooks
  • Windows 7 drives RAM capacity explosion
  • OS deathmatch: Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7
  • Microsoft's roadkill on the journey to Windows 7 and companion slideshow
  • Slideshows: Top 10 features Microsoft stole from Mac OS X and Top 10 features that Apple stole from Windows

This story, "Was Windows 7 worth saving XP for?" was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows 7, Windows in general, and Mac OS X at InfoWorld.com.

This story, "Was Windows 7 worth saving XP for?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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