Windows 7: Perception becomes reality

Why the Microsoft true believers remain blinded to the reality of Windows 7.

I guess it was to be expected. After my article "Windows 7 unmasked" went live this week, the hate mail and snide comments came flooding in:

"Mr. Kennedy, you're an ass."

"You're so clueless."

"Go get a life."

[ Find out how Randall really feels about Windows 7 in his review of the pre-beta release for InfoWorld, ""Windows 7 unmasked" ]

All of this passion over Windows? The product of a multi-billion-dollar global software enterprise that couldn't care a whit about the loyalty or disloyalty of any given dork with a pocket protector living in his mom's basement? Who is it, exactly, that needs to "get a life" here?

But I digress. The sad truth is that, for many true believers, Windows 7 is still very much a fantasy product. It's the Windows that will fix all of the ills visited upon them by Vista. The faster, leaner, more polished Windows that Vista should have/could have/would have been if only x or y or z had happened differently.

To these folks, I have only one thing to say: Wake up and smell the numbers!

Benchmarks don't lie (at least not independently authored ones). And as my contemporaries over at PC Pro UK have confirmed (using their own test scripts), Windows 7 indeed performs almost identically to Windows Vista -- a conclusion that echoes my own while at the same time pointing to the fact that Microsoft's latest and greatest is rapidly transforming from a mere point release into a kind of social phenomenon.

Truth be told, the geek minions want to believe in Windows 7. That's why they'll ignore the hard data and instead keep lapping up the Microsoft Kool-Aid. These are the same sorts of folks who believe that Avacor will really regrow their bald spot, or that U.S. President-elect (love that cool "Office of" podium seal) Obama will really cut their taxes and save their 401(k) plan. Never mind that the stock market took a dive into the toilet the day after the election, or that Avacor's claim to fame is something called "boost" -- aka fake spray-on hair in a can. There's simply no denying a true believer.

That's why you and I keep hearing reports from supposedly reputable sources claiming that Windows 7 "feels so much faster" than Vista. They use terms like "crisper" and "more responsive." However, when you look for hard numbers -- does my massive compound document load faster or does my Visual Studio project compile quicker -- you find nothing. In fact, only those publications brave enough to slap a test harness on Windows 7 M3 (i.e. us -- InfoWorld -- and perhaps those PC Pro UK folks) know the real story:

That the raved-about performance gains in Windows 7 are entirely illusory, the result of some clever tweaking of the Explorer shell to make the UI feel more responsive. Microsoft knows from experience that first impressions are critical. That's why it's stacked the deck with Windows 7 so that your initial reaction -- "the UI seems so fast" -- sets the tone for the rest of your experience.

That it failed to squeeze any real-world performance gains out of Windows 7 (hint: it can't -- it's architectural) is irrelevant. If the OS feels faster, then it is faster. Perception becomes reality. Microsoft wins.

One more point to consider: Hardware.

Remember back to when you first sampled those Vista beta bits? What kind of hardware were you running on? Chances are it had just a single core, perhaps with hyperthreading. You also likely had no more than 1GB of RAM, much of which was constrained by a slower memory bus than the one in your current box. I'd even go as far as to say that the PC you're using today would run circles around the PC you were using back in the summer of 2006, when Vista was just emerging from the shadows.

Now, imagine how you might have reacted had your first taste of Vista taken place on a quad-core box with 4GB of RAM and a fast video card. You see, Moore's Law is a funny thing: Crank up the CPU while swelling the OS and application bits and everything stays about the same (in terms of performance). Repeat this process, while keeping the bits relatively unchanged, and suddenly the world is a faster place.

It's why Windows XP seems so darned quick on today's hardware and why your initial experience with Windows 7 will likely be so much more positive than your initial experience with Windows Vista. Kudos to Microsoft for holding the line with Windows 7 -- given its track record, keeping the new version's hardware footprint so close to Vista's qualifies as a minor miracle.

But let's give the credit where it's due: It's Mr. Moore, and not Mr. Sinofsky, that deserves the thanks for making the bloated Vista code base seem at least semi-tolerable.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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