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 2006, 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 2006 and throughout 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.