May 26, 2009 (05:05 PM EDT)
Wolfe's Den: Mixed Review For Windows 7 Release Candidate
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
I've just taken half an hour out of my busy day to install the new Windows 7 Release Candidate and boy, am I happy. Now reflect on that sentence for a moment -- you might think I'm making light of Microsoft's efforts. Or perhaps you believe I'm an arrogant hacker, when really I'm aware how fortunate I am to get paid to play with software. The point is, getting Windows 7 RC up and running is a refreshingly easy draw on ones' computer skills-set. It installs with hardly a glitch.
I do have some issues with the operating system. However, they are mostly philosophical, not operational; more about that stuff, below. Let's begin at the end, with my top-line assessment of the main pluses and minuses of Windows 7 RC:
Big Plus: Windows 7 RC is the Vista that Vista never was. It runs great and looks good. (Vista was only one for two, and it wasn't the important one, either.)
Lingering Minus: Endless Loopism. You still need a computer science degree to diagnose any problems you run into. Most newbies will hit a snag, click on a Windows box offering to diagnose the problem, then eventually get notified that the problem couldn't be fix, and would they like to go off into help hell for further troubleshooting? No, they'd like you to fix the freakin' problem.
Flummoxed at the lack of a solution, most users will return to square one. They'll click on "diagnose problem," again, then rinse and repeat. This is how I coined the term "endless loopism." Eventually, they'll call the relative who's the designated family IT support person, and get the glitch resolved. I think most people go for that option, because it's far more appealing than talking to a script robot at a call center. Also, because many families have on-site 15-year-olds who can indeed help.
This issue occurred to me after my Windows 7 RC installation was finished. I was all booted up and everything was running fine. Then my Internet connectivity suddenly went South. Only it wasn't my cable modem or router; they were working just fine. Win 7, however, was unable to "repair" my connection. Eventually I did what I always do when I have the same problem on Vista. (Interestingly, this issue has occurred often with Vista, though never with Windows XP.) I simply shut off the computer and do a cold restart. Problem solved.
But I digress. Let's get back to the Win 7 RC review at hand. My installation went without a hitch, and when Windows 7 booted up, it was hard to discern much of a difference from the Windows 7 Beta (which I reviewed in February, here.) That's a good thing; most of the differences between the RC and the beta are under the hood, in the form of bug fixes.
I could natter on about the many point features in the OS -- taskbar previews panes, picture libraries, streaming media support -- but those are actually very minor in the scheme of things. Stipulated: Windows 7 has got lots of cool stuff in it. OK, we get it!
Now let's move on to the more important issue, insofar as the readers of InformationWeek and TechWeb are concerned. Namely, with Windows XP at end-of-life, if you're an IT manager or small-business owner, you've going to be faced -- forced?; let's say instead that you're being rationally coerced -- to upgrade your OS to Windows 7.
If you're at a big company, the upgrade will probably take the form of pushing out new systems-software to hundreds or even thousands of PCs. If you're that owner/operator, you might end up taking the easier route of simply buying new Win 7-equipped laptops.
The point I'm getting at, and about which I've previously written, is that Microsoft has done a great job architecting Windows 7 as part of an enterprise ecosystem, alongside Windows Server 2008 R2 (which is currently also in release-candidate mode).
True, some users -- mainly folks who haven't upgraded from Windows Server 2003 -- are unhappy at the thought of having to upgrade their back-end infrastructure at the same time they're having to pay for and roll out new client systems.
This is indeed a valid argument, in the current cost-constrained world in which we find ourselves. I do think, though, that there's a bite-the-bullet aspect to this conundrum. Namely, you can't expect every new feature in the world to be back-patched into a previous rev of a major server OS. Nor can a customer reasonably expect technology to remain static, in the sense that they can get away with one and only capital expense for software during the life of their company.
Reluctance to periodically partake in such serial capex spending is one reason, at least on the applications side, that Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) has emerged. Until there's OSaaS -- if there can be such a thing-- you're stuck. Of course, should you be bold enough, you can opt out of commercial software entirely, running open-source aka Linux on both the back end and the client. Or maybe even keep supporting your old Windows XP clients until they die like so many old Buicks on the streets of Havana.
Regardless of where you come down in this debate, it's a fact that the Win 7/Server 2008 R2 ecosystem offers a powerful set of enterprise-oriented features. There's the aforementioned deployment help, via Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager. There's also better branch-office support, in the form of bandwidth (and money) saving local caching of large files.
Mostly, Windows Server 2008 R2 gives sysadmins a much broader set of policy enforcement tools -- the better to keep all the company's PC under control. This is stuff like controlling exactly which apps users can run on their machines and what data they have access to. It's the type of Big Brotherism users have long loathed. (I hate it myself, even as I recognize why it's important.)
In earlier times, corporate users' profile have tended to creep out of compliance, as users have taken to "hiding" from the VPN and applying tactics like loading their laptops up with apps when off the network. The fact that Windows Server 2008 R2 can see and authenticate users whenever they connect up to the Internet (and not just when the VPN in) is the secret sauce which will make your IT department's user audits start to match up with reality. (And could make life miserable for some users, though their lives will be more computationally correct, at least as far as their employers go.)
Still Some Gripes
OK, so enough with the enterprise praise. As an individual user, you're also concerned with what Windows 7 will be like on your home PC. The one other negative -- beyond the "endless loopism" about which I wrote above --- which ticked me off probably won't come into play with the vast majority of users.
If you're a Led Zeppelin fan, you've probably heard of the Aleister Crowley quote, "Do what thou wilt." (Btw, I'm not condoning occultism or heroin addiction.) I think Microsoft software is designed with this philosophy, too, in the sense that it seemingly burrows its way wherever and whenever. Or maybe it just doesn't want me doing stuff to my system it doesn't approve of.
The example I'm referring to here came to my attention because I installed Windows 7 RC on a triple-boot box I've put together, which also contains installs of Windows XP and Vista in separate sectors of the hard drive.
So what happened was, I installed Win 7 on the "G:" drive partition. After the OS was loaded and had booted up, I went into Windows Explorer and saw that the expected "G:" partition was now called "C:," and that my Windows 7 install appeared to be on this "C:" drive partition. (So instead of my previous C:, D:, and G: partitions -- don't ask -- I now had C:, D:, and E:. That didn't make sense, I thought. What, the installer not only moved all my files, but corrected all the internal references to those files within my XP and Vista system, program, and data files? And did this all without adding any time to the Win 7 install? Not possible.
Turns out Windows 7 was only aliasing the drive references. That is, what was showing as "C:" was really the "G:" drive. I actually suspect what I've got here is not so much a complaint as a bug report, albeit one which doesn't appear to have any negative functional impact. What it makes me wonder, though, is what other less-than-well-tempered gyrations Win 7 has wreaked on my PC.
That's it for my quick review of the RC. Now, let's delve into an issue of that's of greater long-term import -- the future of the operating system itself. Let's face it, Microsoft's problem's now have little to do with how good Windows 7 is, even granting that it appears to be very good indeed.
The challenge now is figuring out how deal with the sure-to-come proliferation of netbooks, which can't really sustain even a $40 OEM fee for the OS. Microsoft's apparent intentions to cripple Windows 7 on netbooks --- by limiting it to running three applications simultaneously --- clearly isn't the answer.
Add to this the emergence of smart phones as laptop replacements (OK, so this won't happen for real for a few more years), and Microsoft's got a real problem on its hands, in so far as stoking high-volume demand for what amounts to an old-style -- huge in size and resource-suck, traditional in function -- operating system.
True, Microsoft has tried to morph the OS from the pure computing functionality it delivered in the 1990s toward a more media-centric paradigm. Unfortunately, while the PC as media center makes conceptual sense, it doesn't seem to be where the market will ultimately end up.
You could argue that we are there now, in that many consumers have their PCs set up as media centers. I'd respond that this is just a mirage, a false interregnum until the convergence of the PC and the TV is complete. (Go to CES next January and then tell me I'm wrong!) Consumers currently have the PCs configured as "media centers," if they're even aware of this fact, because Vista tilts them in that direction, not because they have a genuine desire to watch movies and TV show downloads while sitting at their home-office desk. (Not during non-office hours, anyway.) The only useful media app on most people's desktops is iTunes. Once Apple can figure out a better way than Apple TV to get videos over to peoples' set tops, it's all over. (Or maybe Amazon will Unbox Jobs first.)
So while Microsoft has done an elegant job in correcting the performance lapses of Vista -- it's fixed search, for example -- I'm not sure that Windows 7 will be anything more (or less) than the last great desktop operating system. Which isn't so bad if this is Microsoft's penultimate (look it up, here; it doesn't mean "last") act, and it's got a true lighter-weight OS successor in the wings.
My idea on that front -- and I know it's quite frankly insane -- is to simply take Linux (any distro will do), fix it up so normal people can actually install and use it, and release it. Call it "Microsoft Open Source." Give it away, sell it for $30 with phone "support" ("Is your PC plugged in?"); who cares? I call this the creative destruction play, because this'd let Microsoft focus on apps, the server OS, (where the revenue stream will remain flush for a long time) and integrating those back-end servers with a heterogeneous mobile workforce running a variety of laptops, netbooks, and phones. With those apps running in the cloud!
I'm veering away from Windows 7 now, so you'll have to read my next column for more on this vision of the hetero-computing future. For now, check out the photo gallery of my Windows 7 RC install, here:
Here's a video I did in March, which includes some Microsoft-generated footage about its enterprise ecosystem.
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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.