Windows 7, one year later: How's Microsoft doing? And what's next?

A year ago today, I was in New York City at the official launch of Windows 7. After one year on the market, how is Microsoft doing? And what do you expect to see in Windows 8?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

A year ago today, I was in New York City at the official launch of Windows 7. After a long public beta, and with the released code widely available months earlier, there wasn't much left to unveil at that point, except for an impressive collection of PCs from OEM partners designed for the new operating system. Most of the Microsoft employees I talked to that day seemed relaxed and genuinely confident. A year later, that confidence is still there. Windows 7 is still selling like gangbusters and the public seems pleased. Back in August, I said: "Windows 7 has been a quiet success, maybe even a phenomenon." That's still true.

In my original review, I called Windows 7 "as close to an essential upgrade as I have ever seen," and I predicted that it would improve with age. A year later, I can already see many of those improvements.

From the standpoint of stability and reliability, Windows 7 has exceeded expectations. The hardware ecosystem was ready, after having been burned badly by Vista, and the Windows Core team did a good job of responding to issues in Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008. With this release, Microsoft might have finally silenced the "Never buy till the first service pack" skeptics. Windows Vista Service Pack 1 was released almost exactly a year after Vista's consumer launch, and it was desperately needed. Microsoft says it doesn't plan to finish Windows 7 SP1 until sometime in the first half of next year. That doesn't seem to bother customers, who have been buying Windows 7 at a rate of 657,000 copies a day over the past year.

One of the biggest under-the-radar improvements to Windows 7 in the past year is the release of Windows Live Essentials 2011. Some reviewers have grumbled about design decisions Microsoft made with the apps in this collection—especially the changes to Messenger—but there's no question these are full-featured programs, not wimpy starter editions. Photo Gallery is particularly impressive with its extensive set of features for importing, managing, editing, and sharing photos. I don't think it's any accident that Apple spent the lion's share of its time this week on detailed demos of its competing apps in iLife '11. I'm looking forward to comparing the two suites when my iLife upgrade arrives in the mail (amazingly, Apple doesn't offer any way to buy and download iLife).

Even a year later, I continue to be surprised that Windows 7 is so much more efficient than Windows Vista. It uses less disk space than Vista and outperforms it across the board, even on relatively modest hardware.

In the missed-opportunities category, Microsoft deserves special mention for its inability to capitalize on its long history of developing Windows for tablets. Although Windows 7 fully supports touchscreens, the OS itself isn't well suited for full-time operation with a fingertip. I have three touch-enabled PCs in this house—two all-in-one desktop PCs and a Dell Tablet PC. The touch features feel like a novelty, and I rarely use them. I'm pretty certain that smart people in Redmond are working to make touch features a more natural part of Windows 8, but we're unlikely to see any of those efforts for at least another year, giving iOS and Android tablets an awfully big head start.

I continue to be amazed and impressed with Windows Media Center. Last week I upgraded our living room Media Center PC with a Ceton InfiniTV tuner, which uses a single CableCARD to tune up to four HD cable channels. (I'll have a more detailed look at that system next week.) The Media Center interface is fluid and elegant, easily more usable than any alternative, including TiVo, and the whole system has been a joy to use. My sources in Redmond tell me, however, that the Media Center team was essentially disbanded after Windows 7 shipped. I hope that Microsoft is planning a Windows 8 Media Center that will be capable of going head to head with Apple and Google's TV offerings. If they let that work go to waste, it will be another tremendous missed opportunity.

In the year after Windows Vista was released, I spent an unfortunate amount of time and energy writing posts about how to tweak, tune, and work around its flaws and usability headaches. What I've enjoyed most about the last year has been not having to do the same for Windows 7. No, it's not perfect, but it's very, very good. Microsoft seems to have figured out, finally, that the best way to design great software is to focus on the user's experience, not just check off items on a feature list.

If Microsoft follows the playbook and the three-year development cycle it used so successfully for this release, the first beta of Windows 8 will appear roughly a year from now. In fact, the window for feedback that will actually influence the design of the next Windows version is closing soon. What are the flaws in Windows 7 that you want to see addressed? What features are at the top of your must-add list? Leave your comments in the Talkback section.

Editorial standards