Microsoft Windows 7 gets a virtual mode

Microsoft says Windows 7 will get backward compatibility with Windows XP thanks to virtualization and a free future download from their corporate Web site

Microsoft has been whispering about some secret feature within Windows 7, and now that secret has been revealed.  Evidently, Microsoft is going to release an add-on to Windows 7 that is designed to allow users to run Windows XP applications in a virtual environment to maintain some form of backward compatibility.  The new feature is being called "Windows XP Mode."

So what is it and how does it work?  According to Microsoft's director of Windows enterprise and virtualization, Scott Woodgate, XP Mode is a virtual Windows XP environment running under Windows Virtual PC, Microsoft's hosted desktop virtualization platform.

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Woodgate posted on his company blog that Windows XP Mode is designed to help small businesses migrate to Windows 7.  "Windows XP Mode provides you with the flexibility to run many older productivity applications on a Windows 7 based PC," wrote Woodgate.

Woodgate added that all you need to do is install suitable applications directly in Windows XP Mode, and the applications would then be published to the Windows 7 desktop where you could run them directly from Windows 7.  It sounds similar to the Parallels Coherence and VMware Unity technologies made famous on each of those companies' respective Mac virtualization products.

What's cool about that is you don't have to open up your Windows XP virtual machine in order to run your XP applications.  Instead, when you install applications inside the XP virtual environment, they are also published out as short cuts to your Windows 7 desktop.  That way, you can just simply run these applications on your desktop along side your Windows 7 applications.  And hopefully, little to no fuss will be involved.

Is it all goodness?  While XP Mode does come with a fully licensed copy of Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 3, I don't know if it is offered free with every version or not.  And it doesn't come in the box (so to speak). Instead it will be offered as a download from Microsoft's Web site.

And although Windows 7 has been proven to operate on older desktop equipment during the Beta period, you will unfortunately need processor-based virtualization support from either Intel or AMD in order to use Mode XP -- remember, it's built on top of the next generation Microsoft Virtual PC 7 product line, and these added virtualization instruction sets are required to operate.

Other questions come to mind as well.  Since the Windows XP support comes from within a virtual machine environment, what does that do from a security standpoint?  Though the XP Mode sounds like it will do a fantastic job of hiding the underlying guest operating system while running applications, a Windows XP operating system is still active and must remain secure, correct?  So what about Microsoft Windows Updates and anti-virus software?  We've now doubled the attack surface of the Windows 7 desktop, so hopefully users are made aware and armed with the necessary tools to handle this.  And what about graphics?  Only recently have we started to see desktop virtualization platforms providing some sort of powerful 3-D graphics.  Unless it offers video pass-through to the underlying physical graphics hardware, legacy games or 3-D applications may not run as expected if they are forced to operate in XP Mode.  And finally, what's the overhead going to be?  If things are going to be seamless, I would assume that means the Windows XP machine is constantly running in the background, so that I can easily just click on one of the XP applications and be off to the races.  So, how much overhead and resources will running Virtual PC 7 and a Windows XP guest OS take up?

Don't get me wrong here, I'm actually a fan of what Microsoft is doing.  I think XP Mode is a great step to keeping the new OS looking and moving forward, but still providing a look backwards so that it can support the widely used Windows XP platform and its applications.  I simply have questions.

Compatibility has been a thorn in Microsoft's side for years, but it sounds like they have a solution to get folks to finally migrate off of Windows XP.  That is, at least as their primary desktop operating system.  Thank goodness for virtualization!

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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