With the release of Windows 7 RC1, it's a good time to see what it tells us about the future of operating systems — and that of Microsoft.
Microsoft is giving this release candidate away with more than a year's grace before users have to purchase the full version. It's not the first time the company has used test versions of its operating system to mollify the industry after a flop: in the 1980s, MS-DOS 4 was such a failure that Microsoft had almost a year's very public 'beta testing' of MS-DOS 5 by way of penance.
It's also not the first time that Microsoft has been woken up by competition. Vista was a product of a company used to taking its time delivering rather lacklustre features that conformed more to the company's business plan than to the needs of its users. That worked fine — when Apple was floundering and desktop open source was a quirk — much as Internet Explorer 6 was fine for five years after the crushing of Netscape.
But the rest of the world has moved on and continues to move on ever faster. As Firefox stirred up IE, so the arrival of OS X and Ubuntu as credible alternatives have riled Windows. Security is more sane, the user interface is less cluttered and compatibility is more important in Windows 7 than with Vista. Most significantly, Microsoft is prepared to forego a year's cashflow in what must be the longest try-before-you-buy scheme ever, outside rank piracy.
There's more for the company to learn. It continues to insist on a plethora of editions, including one aimed at netbooks — a creation of considerable inanity that will only run three applications simultaneously. True, Ubuntu also has a netbook edition: it works better than the mainstream version rather than worse, an approach that Microsoft would do well to emulate.
As a sign of a company learning to adjust to new realities, Windows 7 is a positive and welcome move. But it is reactive — virtualisation included primarily for backward compatibility, security improved by removing features — rather than innovative and has little by way of new directions. The competition is already moving towards the cloud with ideas like Eucalyptus, and towards a far more diverse set of client platforms. Windows can't easily follow without changing dramatically, and dramatic change has never been its forte. Something different is needed for next time.
Windows 7 will prove to be the best client version of Windows ever. It will also be the last that matters.