Last week, Microsoft (s msft) released the public beta of Windows 7, the successor to the much-maligned Vista operating system. After spending the past three days testing the system, I’m impressed. Windows 7 proves that the company from Redmond is in no mood to cede control over the desktop OS market. According to Net Applications, Microsoft’s OS market share dropped to a 15-year low of 89.62 percent last year, with the most gains coming from Apple’s (s AAPL) OS X. Some believe that webtops (think Google (s GOOG)) will soon kill stand-alone desktop operating systems, but I disagree. Microsoft’s overall OS user reach is so huge through hardware sales (a majority of the approximately 300 million Vista deployments are said to be from OEM embedded systems) that an improved version that better integrates with the web will likely stem the desktop market slide. Google understands the advantage Microsoft has, which is why it’s trying to develop the same system for mobiles (as well as for portable cloud client computers) by developing Android.
Microsoft shouldn’t worry too much — at least for now. Windows 7 has UI features that are logical and is better optimized for lower-powered computers, like netbooks.
No, it’s not the full desktop-Internet hybrid that one would have expected, but it is made to take advantage of the Internet. Windows 7 improves web browsing by offering a better desktop experience. For example, your favorite sites (on IE8) can now be launched straight from the taskbar. It also removes bloatware like Windows Mail and Movie Maker in favor of web app versions hosted by Windows Live. This is a double bonus: It frees up a fast system to be used in the cheap netbooks bound to dominate hardware trends in the near future and gives users flexibility over their web choices. Kevin Tofel over at jkOnTheRun has already installed Windows 7 on his netbook.
Windows 7 vs. Windows Vista
Where Windows 7 focuses on improved everyday desktop navigation, Vista focused on the demands of powerful media-centered PCs with a system that eschewed ease of use in favor of powerful but hard-to-use features. And there were the annoying security pop-ups that required excessive proactive engagement on part of the computer users.
Windows 7 reduces those irritations. By only assigning memory tasks to windows you’re using, it hogs less power and memory. This makes it quick on systems with only 1GB of RAM — I booted the OS in less than a minute on two laptops and they had plenty of RAM left over to play multiple applications. This should allow Microsoft to ship it in netbooks without XP-downgrading embarrassments.
The fact that the UI has been remodeled for simple web apps also makes it versatile. A new wireless connections manager now displays all available networks with a single click on the taskbar. Before, it took three navigation screens to find them. The new taskbar does something similar. Traditionally, the bar was used to only keep track of open documents and apps, with text labels. Now, large icons are used to switch between docs and to launch apps, a version of the old alt-tab. This is a controversial change because multifunction apps can be confusing. But navigating through the icons is logical for the web — simply click on the IE8 icon, and each of your open tabs will hover above the bar for your choosing.
It’s also more efficient. To end the annoying pop-ups, there’s a User Account Control window that lets you choose their regularity. Finally, recently visited pages are constantly recommended for quick navigation, like when you right-click on Explorer.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Windows 7 is built on top of the same platform as Vista, it has much of the pointless visual Vista hallmarks (transparencies anyone?), and it’s not quite Linux-thin. But the changes are positive and should fend off the vultures circling in the cloud for a few more years.
As long as the price is competitive for businesses (a valid concern), many will finally see a reason to leave XP and move up in class, especially if their workers use a netbook.