Windows 7 first impressions, and Microsoft's XP problem

Windows 7 is an improvement to Vista, but that might be too little, too late

After downloading the Windows 7 beta last week and tossing it on a VM, I finally made the move and made it my default Windows installation. Normally, my Windows desktops are VMs that I RDP into from my Macs, via the VMware Workstation console on my big Linux workstation where they run. However, I have an IBM Intellistation zPro running Vista that's my "big box" Windows install. It's been powered off for a few weeks now. Instead, I opted to take an HP 2710p tablet and turn it into my physical Windows 7 box, at least to start with.

There was nothing special about the installation, except for the fact that it thankfully only takes a few clicks. Much to my surprise, however, when the 2710p booted post-installation, just about every piece of hardware was accurately detected and available. A few pieces missed the cut, such as the fingerprint reader, but Windows 7 helpfully pointed that out and even gave me a link to download the Windows 7 driver and software for it. That was very handy.

[ Step through Windows 7 in InfoWorld's video guide | Survey InfoWorld's early looks at Windows 7 in the special report ]

The new taskbar is supposedly the killer feature of Windows 7, and it's inarguably an improvement over every other taskbar implementation Microsoft has introduced. Unlike some others, however, I don't see this as besting Apple's Dock, but it's definitely a better alternative to anything found in Windows XP or Vista. However, the fact that clicking on an open application icon in the taskbar doesn't actually bring that application window into focus if it has multiple open windows drives me nuts. You have to click the icon, then select the window you want -- too much mousing around.

After reading Tim Sneath's "Bumper List of Windows 7 Secrets," I opted to place the taskbar on the left of the screen, and I find it handier on smaller screens.

The eye candy when hovering over active applications is nifty, and it makes window selection simpler to some degree, with the caveats noted above. Microsoft even introduced single-app window selections, a la Mac OS X's Cmd-~ switcher, but it's really annoying to access. To only switch between windows in the active application, you must hold down the Ctrl key and repeatedly click the icon in the taskbar. This is less than useful. There's an Alt key and a tilde key on this keyboard -- use them.

Fast application switching is a problem on Windows now and will continue to be in the future. The issue is that the Alt-Tab method of switching between open windows is only useful if you have a small number of open windows. When you have dozens, it's fairly useless. When this switching method was first introduced, there simply wasn't enough horsepower to have dozens of windows open anyway, so it didn't matter. Times have changed, however. Apple's method of using Cmd-Tab to switch between applications, and Cmd-~ to switch between windows in that application is a much better design.

All the Vista-compatible applications I've tried have successfully started and run under Windows 7 beta, including several that were problematic under Vista, such as the ShoreTel client. There are the normal UAC annoyances, but they can be disabled just like Vista, if you like to live on the edge. As with all my Windows installations, I paid the performance penalty and installed a virus scanner and Windows Defender to keep an eye on viruses and malware.

This being a tablet, I was able to test those features too. It's much the same as with Vista, no problems there. Of course, with my newfound use of the left-hand taskbar, I had to move the Tablet Input Panel to the right-hand side of the screen. It might be a little faster than Vista, but I haven't noticed any significant performance increase on this laptop, and I'm not going to run benchmarks on beta code.

So Windows 7 is very nice and all, and it may be that it's is the best iteration of Windows yet, but there really isn't that much there, other than the improved taskbar. When Apple released Leopard, there were significant feature additions and improvements, like Spaces, Time Machine, and so forth. That type of step forward seems to be missing from Windows 7. In addition, there's still no compelling reason for businesses to switch from Windows XP, and that's Microsoft's biggest problem of all.

For the majority of business uses, Windows XP and Office 97 or 2000 are more than enough to handle day-to-day business tasks. In this economy, upgrading functional server and desktop operating systems isn't in the budget, especially when there's no business reason to do so. This isn't a secret, since the corporate response to Vista was lukewarm at best, and those that jumped on the Vista bandwagon initially certainly aren't going to be thrilled to make another leap to Windows 7 so soon. I do know that I'm in absolutely no hurry to move away from Windows XP as the corporate desktop except in some extreme cases -- it's just not worth it.

This leaves Microsoft selling to home users and power users, and relying on the OEM installations to push copies of Windows. The problem there is that by working on Windows 7 so soon after Vista's launch, Microsoft has effectively orphaned Vista -- why buy a copy now when Windows 7 is right around the corner?

In short, did Microsoft peak with Windows XP?

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