Windows Vista lacked the right stuff to unseat Windows XP. Does Windows 7 really have what it takes?
Microsoft software compatibility: Sweet possibilities
When I originally examined the issue of Microsoft software compatibility under Vista, I found no compelling advantage to running the nascent OS. Microsoft's Office team, perhaps sensing trouble on the horizon, wisely chose to fully implement Office System 2007 under both Windows XP and Vista. So when Vista ultimately stumbled out of the gate, the Office folks were able to insulate themselves from the fallout and turn the 2007 variant into yet another in a long line of successful releases.
In hindsight, would tighter Office 2007 integration with Windows Vista have helped the troubled OS? Perhaps. But the lack of significant new usability conventions in Vista would have limited the scope and depth of such integration. Simply put, there wasn't enough meat on the Vista bone to make it worth investing in the kind of exclusive tie-in features that might have helped drive customer adoption of Vista.
Fast-forward a couple of years and you're looking at a very different horizon. With Windows 7, Microsoft is providing a number of compelling new UI paradigms, including a revamped Taskbar with some truly must-have features, like Jump Lists and Aero Peek. And based on my analysis of an early preview version of Office 2010, the application side of the Microsoft house seems to make good use of these new conventions to deliver unique value for customers who adopt the company's new OS along with its new productivity suite.
Of course, Office 2010 will still run on Windows XP and Windows Vista. The Office team would never be foolish enough to tie itself exclusively to any unproven version of Windows. It's just that, for the first time since the debut of Windows 95, Microsoft finally has a "works better together" message it can actually sell to the masses. While these additional integration features might not be enough to convince you, the fact that they exist certainly serves as an incentive.
Bottom line: Windows 7's new UI paradigm provides a number of unique capabilities that Microsoft's application folks can tap into to make their products more compelling. As such, it offers a significant integration advantage versus Windows XP and even Vista.
Third-party application compatibility: Operation virtualization
The final pillar of Vista rejection has always been its spotty support for third-party applications. The combination of UAC and a newer, more complex kernel meant that many legacy applications broke under Vista. And while the blame for at least some of these failures could be laid at the feet of the ISVs -- for assuming their products would always run in an Administrator-level security context -- the fact that they broke under Vista, yet worked just fine under Windows XP, ensured that the black stain of incompatibility was Microsoft's to bear alone.
With Windows 7, Microsoft's third-party application support has improved significantly. Not only has Microsoft benefited from vendors updating their software to work with Vista's new security model, they've also had the opportunity to better diagnose where legacy Windows XP applications failed and to write new compatibility shims for the more troublesome characters. And for the truly problematic programs, Microsoft has an ace in the hole: Virtual Windows XP Mode (VXP), which provides a fully virtualized Windows XP image for running these applications in their native environment.
I've written at length about my misgivings toward VXP. For starters, I would have preferred a solution based on Microsoft's App-V application virtualization platform, if for no other reason than it would have allowed legacy applications to run with full fidelity, as opposed to screen scraped from a Remote Desktop Protocol session (the core of the VXP integration model). Still, VXP is compelling in that it provides a fully licensed copy of Windows XP that you can run alongside your Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate license. And it's free.
Bottom line: Windows XP remains the Gold Standard for application compatibility, a fact Microsoft has fully embraced with Windows 7. Customers can expect a better compatibility experience with the new Windows, and when they do encounter an application that refuses to behave under the native runtime, they can always fall back to Virtual Windows XP Mode.
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