On Wednesday night, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is going to step on stage at the Venetian Hotel’s Palazzo Ballroom to give the keynote address that kicks off the Consumer Electronics Show. It’s the first time for Ballmer, who’s taking the slot that his predecessor Bill Gates has had for years.
It’s widely expected that Ballmer will publicly unveil Windows 7 Beta 1, just as Gates used the stage to announce previous Windows versions. He’ll no doubt have an entourage of product managers to help him do the actual demos, hopefully inspiring a wow or two from the assembled throngs.
I’m looking forward to the demo, even though I don’t expect any surprises. Mostly, I’m going to be listening between the lines, paying attention to the things that Microsoft chooses not to talk about. In the spirit of the occasion, I offer up the following predictions of things that Ballmer will take great pains to avoid saying.
1. “Some of you are going to hate our new OS, no matter what we do.”
Building software is part art, part science, and all compromise. Every design decision involves tradeoffs in performance, in ease of use for novices versus raw power for experts, even in esthetics. I addressed some of these issues in a post I wrote last year, How do you benchmark real-world work? I fully expect each succeeding wave of Windows 7 reviews to include plenty of “Microsoft sucks” commentary. Especially from InfoWorld.
The back and forth between my ZDNet colleague Jason Perlow and me last week illustrates this principle perfectly. Jason (and the commenters who agree with his point of view) want Microsoft to offer an option that allows them to use their system using the Windows interface they mastered in 1998. I think pursuing that backward-looking strategy would be a massive waste of limited development resources.
The bottom line is you can’t please everyone, and one size will never fit all. So the big question for Microsoft is whether they can please enough people and generate enough positive buzz to drown out the negative voices.
2. “Good luck finding drivers for all your old XP-only hardware.”
Over the past few months, I’ve installed and used Windows 7 on a dozen separate systems, representing a wide range in hardware capability and all sorts of different form factors. Virtually every one of those systems had also run Windows Vista at some point in its lab lifecycle, which made it easy for me to track down the best drivers for each subsystem and peripheral.
Over the course of the last two years, I’ve discarded or replaced a handful of devices that didn’t work at all with Vista: several network cards, some storage adapters, a scanner, a TV tuner. In every case, I had to replace the unsupported part or do without. The good news is that the driver model for Windows 7 is identical to that of Windows Vista, so all the hardware I now own (and all the drivers I've bookmarked and saved) will work on upgraded systems.
So, what happens to people who decided to skip Vista and stick with XP, for whatever reason? They get to face those exact same issues. If your device doesn’t have a driver for Windows Vista, it will not work under Windows 7. Period. Full stop.
3. “We’re still at the mercy of our clueless OEM partners – and so are you.”
Some of the worst complaints about Windows Vista came from users who were subjected to horrible installations from OEMs, with poorly written drivers, inadequate hardware, and great heaping helpings of crapware to slow everything down to a crawl.
I had the chance to see this phenomenon up close and personal last year, when I rebuilt a Sony VAIO whose performance with Windows Vista was so awful that its owner basically wrote it off and bought a new MacBook. After a clean installation, including Vista Service Pack 1, its performance was eye-opening and impressive.
Since that time, Sony, Dell, and other top-tier OEMs have cleaned up their acts impressively. But even if Windows 7 turns out to be an excellent operating system, there’s still the potential for it to be scuttled by sloppy or greedy hardware makers. Microsoft executives are jawboning like crazy with their hardware partners; you know they’ll be holding their breath after the launch to see how those systems perform in the real world.
4. “It might be years before we have a killer application for Vista or Windows 7.”
The myth of the “killer app” has never been stronger than with Windows Vista. The idea refers to some program that performs an absolutely irresistible function and only runs on a particular platform. If you need that program, you have to upgrade to the new OS.
But software developers, including Microsoft, aren’t interested in cutting off customers who still use older platforms, especially in this tight economy. So, as a result, most popular Windows programs these days are written to run on Windows XP, Vista, and (soon) Windows 7. And there’s no sign that’s going to change anytime soon.
If anything, Microsoft is doing its best to avoid any kind of Vista-only software. The new Windows Live Essentials bundle, for example, works on XP and Vista, as does Windows Live Mesh and every member of the Microsoft Office family.
None of those programs are going to drop XP support anytime soon (although it's remotely possible that the next version of Office will work only on Vista or later). That strategy of wide backward compatibility is the right thing to do for customers, but it bolsters the argument of those who contend that a killer app is the only reason to upgrade.
5. “Our licensing terms are as hopelessly confusing as ever.”
Microsoft hasn’t gotten around to announcing how many editions of Windows 7 it plans to produce or what their prices will be. But one thing is certain: the confusing, multi-layered Windows business model isn’t going to change.
Royalty OEMs (the big PC makers like HP, Dell, Sony, and Toshiba) have one price list and one set of terms. Small system builders have another set of rules. Retail copies are horrendously overpriced.
Enterprise customers have to navigate through a thicket of price lists and volume licensing programs that actually require their own certification programs. And even Microsoft sometimes contradicts itself completely on how licensing terms apply to some customers.