Windows Vista lacked the right stuff to unseat Windows XP. Does Windows 7 really have what it takes?
Reliability: A little help from friends
In my previous analysis, I noted how Vista's architectural changes were mostly functional: improved power management, new I/O priority levels, delayed loading of services. However, despite a prolonged beta cycle, Vista shipped with a reputation for instability and general quirkiness. Much of this had to do with the poor state of Vista-compatible display and audio drivers. The drawn-out beta process and subsequent mad dash to RTM caught many independent hardware vendors flat-footed, with the resulting scramble to support the finished OS only adding to the product's poor first impression.
Two years later, the landscape looks quite different. The hardware community has fully caught up with Vista, and customers can now embrace the OS with confidence that it is generally as stable as Windows XP in most respects. Windows 7 benefits from this maturity by inheriting the Vista architecture almost unmodified -- the few tangible changes to the kernel mostly revolve around increasing multicore scalability and improving background service behavior. In this case, minimal change is a good thing.
So where does this leave Windows 7 in comparison to XP? Certainly in better shape than Vista was when it shipped. The Windows 7 pre-release code has been nothing if not stable, with many tech-savvy users now running it as their primary OS. That said, the new OS will still need to be thoroughly vetted before IT shops fully embrace it, and the old rule of thumb, "Wait for the first service pack," still applies.
Bottom line: Windows 7 benefits from the maturing of the Vista-era Windows ecosystem. As such, it fares better than its predecessor in terms of initial reliability and should quickly approach Windows XP levels of stability with the first 12 to 18 months of general availability.
Hardware compatibility: Time heals
As I noted under Reliability above, a lack of proper device driver support was the Achilles' heel that doomed Vista to early failure. Audio and video drivers, in particular, were a real nightmare under Vista, with the majority of Blue Screen of Death-type errors traceable directly to shoddy kernel mode coding by market leaders Nvidia and ATI (now AMD). And while these catastrophic system crashes weren't the only stability issues to impact pre-Service Pack Vista -- I personally suffered through more than my share of Registry corruption issues and showstopper plug-and-play bugs -- they served to reinforce the public's perception of Vista as an unreliable OS.
Things change. In the case of Vista, the hardware ecosystem eventually caught up with the OS. Most new PCs and devices provide excellent Vista support, with mature drivers that are stable and relatively full-featured. Likewise, the OS itself has stabilized, thanks to the release of two important service packs and a host of smaller hotfixes. And legendary culprit Nvidia seems to have learned its lesson from the Vista debacle. Nvidia has been actively engaged in the Windows 7 beta program, publishing a number of pre-release test drivers and generally following a very aggressive QA cycle.
The net result is that Windows 7 inherits a much more complete ecosystem, a clear advantage of preserving -- as opposed to replacing -- the Vista kernel architecture. As with Vista, many Windows XP drivers still work unmodified under Windows 7. And for those that do not, there is more than likely a corresponding Vista-specific version available that should work seamlessly under the newer Windows.
Microsoft is also making better use of its Windows Update site with Windows 7. In fact, the new Windows ships with a much smaller library of device drivers on disk, relying instead on Windows Update to provide the primary conduit for obtaining nongeneric drivers from third parties (Nvidia and Intel area already making good use of this mechanism). And while there will no doubt be exceptions, they'll likely be isolated to legacy devices for which the original vendor is unwilling or unable to provide a Windows Vista/Windows 7-compatible driver.
Bottom line: The days of uneven hardware support under Vista are over. Windows 7 inherits a well-rounded ecosystem of mature drivers that should enable it to achieve Windows XP (current generation) levels of initial customer satisfaction.
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