Windows 7 Beta 1: Ribbonized For Your Pleasure

The Windows 7 Operating System has improvements over Windows Vista which include more granular tuning of User Account Control (UAC) security prompts, a reduced memory footprint and improved performance on less powerful systems. But will the "Ribbonization" of the new user interface created by Steven Sinofsky's design team put users off?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

The Windows 7 Operating System has improvements over Windows Vista which include more granular tuning of User Account Control (UAC) security prompts, a reduced memory footprint and improved performance on less powerful systems. But will the "Ribbonization" of the new user interface created by Steven Sinofsky's design team put users off? (Illustration by Zack Whittaker, design concept by Jason Perlow)

Over the last week or so, a number of us on the site have been talking about the Windows 7 beta, at least those of us who have had preliminary access to the code and have been able to work with the software for a short period of time. My colleagues have all had a number of things to say about it. Resident PC expert Adrian Kingsley-Hughes doesn't have a definitive answer yet as to overall performance relative to Vista or XP but likes some of the new self-healing capabilities, and like me finds a number of UI issues annoying and too many things have changed or moved since XP. Ed Bott likes the fact that the OS is customizable, that they've eliminated a number of stupid Vista UI anomalies, and the improved UI can be tweaked by a willing power user six days from Sunday.

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I personally have mixed thoughts as to whether or not based upon the supposed feature-complete Beta 1 (build 7000) of the OS  that will be available for public download from the Microsoft web site tomorrow that Windows 7 is enough of an improvement to warrant current users of Vista to go out and spend significant money on license upgrades when the OS is eventually released, sometime at the end of 2009. I'm sorry, but there just isn't enough extra meat to this thing to say this is more than just a X.1 release.

I've already said that anyone who has purchased Vista via a retail box or a system preload really should be entitled to a free Windows 7 upgrade, but realistically, I know that Microsoft probably doesn't have the stones or the corporate menschkeit to do this and will charge hefty upgrade fees, particularly for existing Ultimate and Premium users. At the very least, I think some of the minor things which are featured in Windows 7 which do not require major UI-redesign or kernel-level regression testing or backporting such as the improved granular UAC capabilities should make their way into a future Vista Service Pack or via a post-SP2 hotfixes.

The bottom line, however, is not what the hell us pundits believe. What matters at the end of the day is what the end-users and Microsoft's customers think about the product based upon real world usage -- which is why I am encouraging all of you who actually care about this stuff to get in line, point your browsers at that download site, and start banging on the code on a designated test box. For those of you with MSDN and TechNet access, go ahead and pull that puppy down now, and start wailing at it and submit reports about every single thing that annoys or frustrates you. It's up to you to make the thing break, and figure out what doesn't work and what needs to get fixed.

I will give credit to Microsoft where credit is due -- For the first time that I can tell, Microsoft is publicly beta testing a major OS release and is allowing a very large pool of users to download it without any pre-qualifications. Be advised, that while this beta pool is much larger than Vista's or any previous Windows beta release, Microsoft is only allowing the first 2.5 million registered users to download the software, so I would be vigilant and persistent if you can't get through for the next few days.

Also, I recommend that if you are installing Windows 7 on a box you've spent a lot of time tweaking and customizing the way you like it, that you disconnect the hard disk, and hook up a new one for the sole purposes of testing the OS -- or at the very least, clone your system configuration with an image-based backup tool like the Open Source System Rescue CD's Partimage, Norton GHOST or Acronis True Image. Those of you who have never ran Vista before and are thinking of plunging into Windows 7 should be aware that there is no upgrade path from Windows XP -- Beta 1 only supports an in-place upgrade from Vista.

That being said, I think before anyone goes jumping into this, they'd better understand what they are getting into. Regular beta advisories aside (and if you've never beta tested an OS before, be prepared for a bunch of stuff not to be baked, such as missing drivers for peripherals and devices) and fully accepting the risk that this thing may blow up your system and you could very possibly lose data if you don't back your stuff up frequently -- If you're one of those people that despise what they did to Office 2007, you're going to be equally pissed at what's become of Windows 7.

See, the UI design team (led by Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky) which was responsible for Office 2007 was put in charge of designing the UI for Windows 7. If you love Office 2007, you're in for a treat. However, if you found many of the changes in Office 2007 to be superfluous and counter-intuitive -- such as the new Ribbon Interface which made the product infamous -- and changes made for the sake of change, then many aspects of Windows 7's UI are likely to piss you off for the exact same reasons.

As someone who works with a lot of software, I've had to adapt to many software UI changes. It's part of what I do as a technologist. I've architected large computer systems and rolled out very complex custom coded as well as off-the-shelf applications to significant user populations at large companies, and I have seen first hand what happens when you hand over the keys of a new or updated application or environment to a user-community -- anything that represents a significant change from the way they have done something in the past without any significant improvements to the actual business process or the effectiveness of the application or environment brings them into full-blown torches and pitchforks mode.

I happen to use Office 2007 at least part of the time, because I have an MSDN entitlement and I am starting to get more and more documents from people that have been saved in that format. But that doesn't mean I actually like it better than its predecessor, Office 2003, which hadn't changed significantly in several prior releases, including Office XP, Office 2000 and Office 97. I'm a heavy Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2003 user, and I know them quite well, like a Indy-car or Formula 1 race car driver knows where everything is by instinct and reflex because his life depends on it.

By comparison, Office 2007's UI-rejiggering was the equivalent to making me drive British-style using a joystick and aircraft throttle controls, with dashboard readouts written in Cyrillic in Playskool colors. I've adapted somewhat to Word 2007, but to say that both Excel and PowerPoint 2007 (and Visio 2007) make me throw my hands up in disgust on a daily basis would be something of an understatement.

While granted that the infamous Office 2007 Ribbon itself only appears in a scant number of apps and dialogs in Windows 7 (Such as the revamped WordPad and Paint) the overall design ethic throughout the entire operating system of moving things around and re-inventing the wheel is consistent with what this UI team has produced before. I expect future iterations of the beta to have even more "Ribbonization".

So call me a dinosaur, call me a Luddite, call me whatever you want. I have a thick skin, and I live in New Jersey. As I said, my opinion in the grand scheme of things does not matter -- but you and your collective buying and testing power does.

Are you going to download the Windows 7 Beta? Or do the changes give you pause? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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