Windows 7 finally makes the big time

Although the double whammy of a bad economy and an underwhelming Vista put Microsoft on the back foot, Windows 7 has proved itself ready to support the next wave of corporate IT upgrades

This time last year, the key word about corporate adoption of Windows 7 was 'whether'. Now, it's 'when'.

This isn't due to the might of Microsoft's marketing machine finally breaking down resistance, but the far saner business of IT managers adopting a wait-and-see policy. The experience of Vista reinforced the old rule of 'never buy the first version of anything'. While the actual first version of Windows just saw its 25th anniversary, Vista was different enough to XP to qualify as a brand-new product — and not one with enough advantages to outweigh its downsides.

Vista's corporate penetration peaked at around seven percent, according to a Forrester survey. Anyone who knows one of those installations — or worse luck, works with one — knows that this is a welcome sign that the majority of companies are still capable of making good IT decisions.

A year after its launch, Windows 7 still carries the unofficial slogan 'Vista done right'. That might not be the message that Microsoft wanted it to carry, but it's effective. That same Forrester survey says that fully 30 percent of new company PCs come with the new operating system, with the number predicted to rise to 83 percent next year. Our own ZDNet UK survey results weren't quite as forthright — with 36 percent of respondents saying they're still considering switching to Linux and 25 percent prepared to think about OS X — but this is driven more by consideration of costs than any technical or practical reservations. In our poll, 33 percent said that software pricing is the major delaying factor in adoption, while 27 percent cited hardware upgrade costs.

On the upside, one-third of respondents said that Windows 7's technical improvements were the major factor driving migration, and 29 percent quoted its increased manageability. Nearly one-quarter cited the upcoming casting adrift of XP by Microsoft support. With the final deadline for that withdrawal still three years away, it'll be interesting to see how that attitude changes in 2011.

What many have found is that while Windows 7's compatibility with older applications isn't perfect, it's good enough to justify the pain of supporting a piecemeal upgrade, with new PCs running the new OS alongside legacy computers still on XP. That wasn't true for Vista.

To some extent, this reflects the fact that IT support within corporates is now extremely competent and experienced with XP; there are plenty of senior staff now with nearly a decade under their belt of keeping that operating system on the road, and it is no longer the burden it was. Plus, once the various teething issues are sorted out, Windows 7 is proving reliable and largely painless — a perception helped by the general move away from desktop apps to corporate services accessed through the browser.

With Windows 7 comes freedom from Internet Explorer 6: it's an enforced freedom, to be sure, but a modern browser moves most of the support focus away from the desktop and onto the backend application servers. That has its own challenges, but moves IT departments away from the burden of having a variety of problems spread across hundreds or thousands of seats. Logistics, rather than basic technology, continues to be one of the defining aspects of IT support.

It helps a lot that Windows 7 is much better suited to...

...a modern computing environment in other ways. Concepts that were barely on the radar at XP's launch — strong encryption, efficient desktop search, bulletproof internet connectivity and VPN capabilities — are now essentials for all IT workers.

Windows 7 also benefits from the support industry that grew up around Vista; that operating system's many problems spawned many tools for application transition, virtualisation and upgrade management. Of course, Microsoft itself has included some of these capabilities within Windows 7, as well as providing a number of free tools such as MDT 2010 to aid the transition.

The other big pusher is the slow climb out of recessionary times, which combines with the ageing nature of many corporate desktop and laptop fleets. This has been masked to some extent again by the move to in-browser IT, shifting attention to the server, but attention is moving back to performance.

Modern browsers with complex, media-heavy plug-ins and multiple tabs make heavy demands on CPU and memory, and all the major browser makers are concentrating on application acceleration through use of video processors and other hardware aspects. Although Windows 7 has learned the importance of making efficient use of hardware — in some cases, it works better than XP on older PCs — the online experience is no longer throttled by slow network connections and underspecified servers.

With developers finding that cloud-based services can scale superbly to match demand, the battle now is to deliver web applications that meet or exceed desktop-hosted software in terms of speed, ease of use and experience. Old hardware is falling behind, and companies are ready to invest.

Even where client software is indispensable, as often because it costs too much to redevelop and test alternatives, virtualisation and vendor tools make it attractive to move it across to new hardware — and a new operating system — without much of the pain that previously epitomised such a transition.

The stars have finally aligned in Microsoft's favour, and it once again has a success on its hands. One can argue deep into the night whether this is because the company has started to make the right decisions, or because the overall computing environment is favourable. The truth, as always, probably lies with a bit of both sides. But our experience shows that while Windows 7 may not be quite as heavenly as promised, it's certainly more divine than its predecessors. A slow start has morphed to accelerating acceptance, and the promise of a modern operating system at everyone's fngers is finally being kept.

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