Is your IT organisation ready for Windows 7? You should at least know what Windows 7 has to offer and where it comes up short. You might be planning to do this on your own schedule, but you will find that you pretty much have to do some of your preparation on Microsoft's schedule.
That's because the marketing push by Microsoft and its partners will be huge, possibly exceeding US$1 billion in cost. Your users are going to know about Win 7, with a certain percentage sure to start clamouring for it or even taking matters into their own hands. What will you do if your schedule gets pressured by events?
Win 7 betas were available for months prior to the software's offical launch on October 22. With my own assessment of the beta, I see four major benefits that are compelling about Windows 7 and four big problems. Here's what to look forward to and what to watch out for.
Improved reliability and security. You would think that security and reliability would be table stakes by now, but Windows 7's stability and its security features should make it an attractive alternative for the millions of PCs that are still running Windows XP. There were a lot of reasons to stick with XP, which was a good operating system, but let's face facts: It came out eight years ago, when no one expected the amount of security and reliability issues that would plague PCs today.
Microsoft has learned a lot since the launch of XP, and it shows. Windows 7 is much more stable and secure than any previous version of Windows. Admittedly, though, it's not easy to justify the cost and migration headaches of a new operating system on the basis of features that should have been there already.
A better IE — One of the biggest vulnerability points for Windows environments has been Internet Explorer. IE7 addressed a lot of older issues, but IE8 running on Win 7 takes security and overall browser usability to the next level. The problem is that many of IE's features can be had in Chrome, Safari or Firefox.
Aero Glass/Aero Peek and Aero Shake — Computers on TV never run XP. They have slick-looking user interfaces unavailable in the real world. It's mostly eye candy, but it's really nicely done eye candy. Win 7 has some of that appeal. Running Windows 7 with the all of the Aero UI elements enabled is a joy, and returning to XP after using it is a real letdown. Aero is how computers should look in the 21st century.
Media centricity — Media is a first-class citizen in Win 7. Tight integration with Windows Media Player and the Windows Media Center makes it really easy to browse, navigate, tag and play all the content that's important to you. Music, pictures and video all work just the way you think they should. Even better, through "home group", you can access your media on any machine, wherever in the world it is.
Gratuitous UI changes: I love the Win 7 UI, but I have a lot of experience invested in the old Windows ways of doing things — and some of the changes just seem gratuitous and make no sense to me. Also annoying are on-screen UI targets that you have to hit with your cursor but that are so tiny they make you think that Microsoft is hiring a lot of young workers who have great eyesight and/or high-resolution monitors. And using Touch and fingers to navigate is somewhat of an exercise in frustration.
Performance: All this goodness comes at a price. While most features are enabled to some degree on stock PCs, older machines might not be up to snuff. In my tests, Win 7 ran much better than Vista on older hardware, especially netbooks. Nonetheless, if you're coming off of XP and want to run the latest and greatest with all UI features enabled, you're going to need an upgrade.
Compatibility: This is not a new issue, but users who skipped Vista (and they are legion) are going to have to deal for the first time in a long while with major backward-compatibility issues. In general, drivers and low-level utilities are worst hit, but all critical apps will need to be tested carefully to see what works and what's broken. Microsoft has created a virtual version of XP to help deal with older apps that won't run, but running that alongside your Win 7 installation is not a process for the fainthearted — and it requires the care and fielding of two operating system clients on your machine, including dealing with malware and antivirus.
Migration: Especially for IT organisations, this is the most critical issue. Moving from Vista to 7 is not a big deal, if you are dealing with like versions or moving to Windows 7 Ultimate. Otherwise, you basically need to start from scratch, which means 1) backing up all your data and files to an external PC or HD, assuming you know where they are; 2) running the Win 7 install; 3) restoring all your data; and 4) re-installing all your applications (including finding install disks, downloaded versions and licence keys).
And if your migration is from Windows XP, starting from scratch is the only choice. You can skip the Win 7 install if you buy new machines, but you'll still have to do all those other steps plus clean off all the vendor bloatware from the new computer.
This is Microsoft's one real misstep with Win 7. The company has addressed many of the shortcomings of Vista and therefore given XP users a compelling reason to finally upgrade. But then Microsoft makes the upgrade process so difficult as to be offputting. Given the number of XP machines out there, I wonder whether some user companies won't research their operating system alternatives before they commit to Windows 7.
Bottom line? There's a lot to like in Windows 7, but it's a lot easier to like it if you have an easy migration path, from Windows Vista. And given the level of hype we can expect from Microsoft for this launch, IT should make sure it's in charge of migration before users make the decision for them.