So far, I feel that Windows 7 has had a pretty easy ride, both by tech pundits and tech enthusiasts. People who see and get a chance to spend time with Windows 7 seem to like the OS. There are even Mac fans out there willing to admit that Windows 7 is pretty good. But let's take the gloves off and get down to the nitty-gritty and ponder a question that anyone who is considering upgrading an OS should be asking themselves - What's really new in Windows 7?
Before we go on, allow me to clarify what I mean by new. I look at an OS as a springboard for other applications, but most modern OSes can, and do, go beyond that and offer the user a raft of features to make doing what you want to do easier. So, the question that I pose with regards to Windows 7 is what new features does the OS bring to the table that you can't find in other OSes, or couldn't add easily using third-party apps. Or, to put it another way, we'll try to figure out what the real advantages are of upgrading your current OS to Windows 7.
As the basis for examining new features, I'm going to use Microsoft's own Windows 7 What's New pages as a reference. For convenience I'll group together some of the features listed.
OK, let's get started!
I like the Windows 7 user interface, and it contains some really neat features such as a revamped TaskBar and JumpLists. I also love the new high-quality icons that make Windows 7 easier to use on large, high-resolution screens.
That said, I'm having a hard time seeing the Windows 7 UI as a new UI. I think that it's fairer to call it an evolution of the UI that Microsoft introduced in Windows 95. Sure, it's come on a long way, but the new additions feel more like bolt-on improvements rather than a radical shift in thinking.
The UI itself might be unique, but it's based on old-school thinking.
Meh ... if you want IE8 then you can run it on XP or Vista. Anyone wanting to upgrade to 7 just to get their hands on IE8 really needs to get out more.
Nothing new here, move along ...
Device management is another area that is radically improved in Windows 7. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to help make it easier for the user to get access to their devices through the OS. Those people who don't have the time or energy to trawl through the OS figuring out where everything is will appreciate everything being in one place.
However, there's nothing all that new here.
HomeGroup makes sharing a particular PC's resources with other PCs on the network easier. The idea is nothing new in the workplace, but for the home user, HomeGroup does bring something new to the table in that it makes the whole process of sharing data and printers much easier.
Unless someone can prove to me otherwise, this is the first tick in the "unique" box for Windows 7.
No doubt the performance of Windows 7 is much better than that of Windows Vista (especially when compared to the initial RTM release), but striving for better performance is nothing new to OSes.
A few new tweaks, but otherwise noting ground-breaking.
OK, nice to see fewer BSoDs, but this hardly counts as "unique," does it?
Time will tell ...
Without a doubt Microsoft has improved search in Windows 7. However, to get the most out of this you need to work in the way Microsoft wants you to work. But you could install something like Google Desktop onto an XP or Vista system and get a far better search experience.
I'm kinda torn here. Media center technology isn't unique to Windows, let alone Windows 7, but there are some cool new Windows 7 features that certainly come close to being unique to an OS. Windows 7 makes streaming media to another PC (and have it automatically transcoded to a different format if the destination system can't handle the original format) a snap, and access your home media while on the move via the Internet.
Not new features as such, but Windows 7 certainly makes leveraging these features easy.
Note: Be aware that Windows 7 won't give you native support for Blu-ray, so you'll still have to rely on third-party software to support this new format.
Microsoft has enormous reach into the PC industry via OEMs, and this means that the Redmond giant has the power to make new technology mainstream very quickly. A new feature that Windows 7 brings to the table is touch technology. Sure, it's not new, and it's not entirely unique, but Windows 7 will certainly bring touchscreen technology to the masses.
Note: Also worth noting is a point made by my blogging colleague Mary Jo Foley:
In the good old days, Microsoft could get away with upping the per-copy OEMs price for Windows by $15, $20 or more over the previous version, claiming that it was providing PC makers with more and more functionality with each release. But today, Microsoft is actually removing previously bundled Windows features — everything from Internet Explorer, to Photo Gallery, to Media Player — in order to head off current and potential antitrust suits. Should the company be charging PC makers more for a new version of Windows that includes less functionality?
So by moving to Windows 7 you could be paying for a downgrade, especially if a well-loved feature has been given the chop.
The bottom line -->
The bottom line ...
So, what's the bottom line here? Well, the way that I look at OS technology is that it represents progressing rather than sudden ground-breaking changes. A new OS isn't something that people need to rush out to adopt because there's usually very little reason to do so.
Also, I think that users out there need to know that there's very little that's new or unique to Windows 7. Sure, there are some nice features, but so far I've not come across anything that I'd label as a killer or a must have feature. Even Microsoft's best marketing propaganda has so far been pretty subdued. However, before you take that out of context, consider that the same can be said of most modern OSes. Over the past decade we've seen convergence of the sort that was previously unheard of, and as more people use the browser as an OS, the actual OS they have installed on their computers becomes less of an issue. Flickr, Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, YouTube and so on don't care what OS you use. Killer features are few and far between, and some might say that the desktop/notebook OS has gone about as far as it can.
If your PC currently runs on Vista or XP, then there's little that you'll find in Windows 7 that you can't either do with your current OS with a bit of know-how, or using third-party software. Sure, if you want the convenience of HomeGroup or Media Center, or want to get the best out of touchscreen technology, then Windows 7 will be there waiting to offer you that, but these are fringe examples. Over 80% of users out there use less than 20% of the features and technologies offered to them by their current OS, making upgrading the OS unnecessary, and costly, hassle. Most people (and that includes the home office/small office and small business users out there) would be far better off spending money earmarked on a new OS on more RAM, larger hard drives, or better data backup mechanisms. Let the new OS come to you when you buy new PCs. As for enterprise customers, people I speak to are still playing the wait and see game, and I have little doubt that many, even those who are enthusiastic about Windows 7, will wait until the first service pack is released before making a commitment.
Another thing to bear in mind is that Microsoft will one again try to create artificial stratification within the Windows 7 ecosystem by removing some features from lower versions. For example, if you want to be able to access your PC via remote desktop, you have to stump up the cash for Professional. But consider whether you really need to spend extra cash for a feature that you can add for free. Similarly, you can add features such as DVD playback support to Starter edition using freely available software. Remember, Microsoft relies on naive users being dissatisfied with the lower-specced editions of Windows to boost revenues.
I'm not going to make any silly claims that Microsoft will be dethroned any time soon, but I do believe that unless the Redmond giant can align user expectation with price (in a market where technology prices are falling at an incredible rate), their seemingly unstoppable upgrade train could well be headed for the buffers.
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