The Chrome OS is here — sort of. This week, Google was kind of enough to give the world a sneak peek at its nascent desktop operating system. And after months of speculation (and more than a few bogus screenshot galleries), I can finally say that I've seen the future ... and it's not Chrome OS.
Stories by Randall C Kennedy
Everyone loves a killer feature: that must-have capability or technology that prompts you to spend hard-earned cash in an effort to upgrade your computing experience.
In the case of Windows, there have been precious few versions that included a truly killer feature. Windows 3.1 was a killer version because it allowed PCs to finally break (or at least reduce the impact of) the dreaded 640K barrier. Windows NT was a killer version (at least for power users) because it introduced the concepts of client-server security and true, hardware-based memory protection to the environment.
Windows XP was a killer version because it bridged the gap between the consumer (Windows 9x) and business (Windows NT) computing spaces. And though generally considered a flop, Vista was a killer version in that it forced the Windows ecosystem to evolve beyond the Windows XP paradigm and thus paved the way for Windows 7.
Which brings me to my main point: Windows 7 is a killer version — but not for the reasons you think. It's not because it fixes Vista's many faults — it doesn't. Rather, it glosses them over with fresh paint and behavioural tricks.
It's also not because of the new UI. Although I'm a huge fan of the new task-bar-driven interface, much of the underlying concept is merely a rip-off of the Mac's aging dock metaphor. And it's not because Windows 7 is somehow lighter than Vista — testing shows it takes up about the same amount of RAM when executing an identical workload.
Lust: Beware Windows 7's faux-Mac experience, which may drive users to the real thing
It is true: Windows 7 will drive the single biggest renaissance in Windows application design since the debut of Windows 95 nearly 15 years ago.
I came to this conclusion while perusing the updated Windows User Experience Interaction Guidelines recently released by Microsoft in anticipation of the Windows 7 launch. As I poured over the various examples of Jump List variations and animated Taskbar icon overlays, it struck me just how much the Windows UI has evolved with Windows 7. For the first time in recent memory, I am actually excited at the prospect of seeing how third-party developers exploit the myriad new conventions.
It wasn't always this way. Windows Vista revamped the UI's look and feel, but the changes were mostly skin deep: new dialog layouts, some tweaked button/control designs and, of course, Aero glass. Windows XP was likewise a yawner when it came to UI innovation. There were some new wizards and an updated visual skin (which was somewhat accurately described as having been "drawn in crayon"), but nothing that changed how you interacted with applications at a fundamental level.
Contrast these non-examples with Windows 7 and you begin to see why this Windows version may have the same kind of lasting impact that its long-ago progenitor enjoyed in 1995. Back then, the concept of a "push button application switcher" (the Taskbar) was entirely new, as were the equally innovative Start menu and notification tray. Application developers practically tripped over themselves to exploit these innovations and to take advantage of Windows 95's 32-bit execution model. I predict a similar flurry of activity around Windows 7, as developers retrofit their offerings to provide the expected level of UI "freshness".
Of course, not all is sunshine and roses with Windows 7. There's a real chance that these new UI conventions will simply widen the chasm that separates XP users from the current state of the art. The thought that you might need to upgrade your applications in order to fully realise Windows 7's usability benefits might be enough to give IT shops pause. In fact, the new UI may ultimately prove to be a liability as recalcitrant organisations latch onto it as yet another excuse not to upgrade. The old "retraining" bugaboo still has legs, especially in a struggling economy.
And there is the issue of quality control. Developers have spent years figuring out what does and does not work under the "classic" Windows UI. Now, as they're presented with a box full of new visual toys to play with, there is a genuine risk that overeager developers will misuse the new conventions and deliver real clunkers that tarnish the platform's reputation.
To its credit, Microsoft goes to great lengths in the guidelines to highlight the proper use of Windows 7's new UI conventions, including providing copious right-way/wrong-way examples. The question is, will developers take heed? As well, will the forces of intractability seize upon these and similarly nebulous objections as a way to once again postpone their migrations away from Windows XP?
Time will tell, but I'm cautiously optimistic that Windows 7 will be a success and that we will see some real innovation with applications targeted at its unique UI conventions. In the meantime, developers would do well to peruse the aforementioned guidelines and avoid the kind of functional and visual blunders that have plagued so many of their predecessors. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
Windows 7 has finally been released to manufacturing. Suffice it to say, I'm not sad to see it go. After two public releases and nearly a dozen leaked builds, I'm sick of installing and testing what amounts to Vista R2. It's time to move on to the next version: Windows 8.
Of course, we currently know nothing about Windows 7's successor. Microsoft isn't dropping any hints, and with Steve Sinofsky heading up the whole Windows platform, don't expect this to change anytime soon. But that doesn't mean we can't start speculating. Here are my top five predictions for Windows 8:
Prediction 1: No more 32-bit. Microsoft has been juggling the whole 32-bit versus 64-bit equation for far too long. Maintaining dual code bases — even with copious source sharing between them — is a real waste of resources. We saw it first with Windows Server 2008 R2. Expect a repeat performance with Windows 8, which will be 64-bit-only.
Prediction 2: Mesh is big. Microsoft's Live Mesh is a real sleeper technology. I expected big things from this hybrid local/cloud synchronisation framework for Windows 7, but Microsoft chose instead to focus on build quality. However, you'll be hearing a lot more about it in the coming months as Microsoft continues to extend Windows into the cloud.
Prediction 3: App-V makes its mark. I've already declared Windows XP mode to be a brain-dead way of implementing legacy compatibility. However, given the time constraints associated with Windows 7, Microsoft chose the easy route and put off the hard work of integrating application virtualisation for another day. Expect to see App-V come to prominence as the company seeks to further abstract its legacy Windows APIs from the core OS.
Prediction 4: Windows gets fatter. Forget all your MinWin fantasies. The reality turned out to be quite different — namely, the compartmentalisation of Windows layers to map and remove dependencies. Expect this work to continue with Windows 8, but for the core OS model — NT Executive supporting various runtime subsystem environments — to remain relatively unmodified. Windows 7 has shown us that incremental change is a good thing, especially at the kernel level. There's a reason why this latest iteration is so stable, and it has more to do with what Microsoft didn't change than any improvements it made under the hood.
Prediction 5: Subscribe today. The days of the shrinkwrapped package are numbered. Microsoft is already flirting with electronic distribution of Windows via its pre-order programme. Expect this trend to continue, with Windows 8 available via a downloadable installer application that you receive after registering for you new Windows client subscription.
Note: As with any predictions article, take the above with a grain of salt. After all, with Google's Chrome OS on the horizon, we may well find ourselves living in a Google-dominated world where the very idea of an OS that isn't web-based seems anachronistic.
At least that's what everyone keeps telling me.
A two-horse race. That's how the market for general purpose desktop virtualisation packages is shaping up, at least for the foreseeable future. With Microsoft all but abandoning Virtual PC (no updates in more than a year), and with everyone else focusing on the datacentre (including Microsoft), the field now consists of just VMware Workstation and Sun Microsystems' xVM VirtualBox.
I love analysts. Whether it's predicting tomorrow's next big thing or sounding the death knell for yesterday's industry pacesetter, analysts never run out of new ways to get it wrong.