While Steve Ballmer was giving his blockbusting Windows 7 keynote at CES, we grabbed an opportunity to catch up with John Curran, Windows head honcho at Microsoft UK. Now that it's possible to download Microsoft's latest operating system, detailed analysis of its strengths, new features and weaknesses abound.
But above and beyond that, how is Microsoft positioning Windows 7 in the general scheme of things, with both Vista and XP still extant?
Windows 7: a quick starter?
Firstly, Curran is a tiny bit coy about when Windows 7 will be on general sale – perhaps mindful of the extended period in which Vista was in beta; "There's no change from what we've been disclosing since we released Windows Vista, which is that within three years of the launch of Vista, we would release Windows 7.
We still feel we're on a trajectory to hit that particular timeline." Maybe the protracted launch of Vista creates an illusion, but Windows 7 seems to have come along surprisingly quickly. Curran disagrees: "Essentially, we're right on what would be our normal schedule, We intend to release a new operating system about once every three years – historically, that's what we've done – look at Windows 95, then 98, then Windows XP in 2001."
Curran's big message is that Windows 7 enters a computing world which has radically changed in recent years, and has been much more carefully designed for that world: "When XP came out, it was optimised for PCs and it was optimised for packet software – that's the world it was in.
'The paradigm has fundamentally changed'
With Windows Vista, and now with Windows 7, that paradigm has fundamentally changed. Both operating systems have been designed and optimised for a world where it's about software and services.
The cloud is important – it's about reaching out to the web and being always on, as well as compatibility. Making those experiences richer is important. And then, on the hardware side, obviously you want great PCs and great PC form-factors, but you also want it tied into that broad array of devices that are now out there. The sheer growth of the whole digital lifestyle and the connection point back into the PC is critical."
That, slightly convoluted, statement is reflected by the Windows 7 features he selects as key. He kicks off by highlighting the support for multi-touch, then continues with: "One of the things that people will see when they first interact with Windows 7 is that we've streamlined and simplified the user interface, and it's optimised to allow people to take advantage of all the things that they do on a normal basis.
Such as integrated searching from the Taskbar. The Taskbar is context-specific: so I can launch straight from the Taskbar, rather than having to fire up the application."
Devicestage and Homegroup
He also mentions Devicestage, which; "Is one common user interface that lets people manage all their peripherals and device that connect in," and Homegroup: "Windows 7 really looks at people's whole digital life and how everything is connected together. Take Homegroup, which is basically your home networking."
"It brings all of these devices together in a simple way, so that you can easily connect all of them, share across all of them and use your media across them. If you've got your home PC, your Netbook and so on, all containing different music, photos and so on, when you search a Library, you're not just looking at all your folders on your PC, but across all the devices on your Homegroup."
And he talks up the operating system's support for the consumer electronics control interface DLNA 1.5: "I'll be able to, say, take my music playlist and play it at a click of a button on my home stereo. So I can play to a TV if it's video, or a stereo if it's DLNA-compliant. If I were to go out and buy, say, a new stereo receiver today, I would make sure it's DLNA 1.5-compliant."
Then there's the issue of performance: "That has been a focus for us in the Windows 7 development. If I'm an average person, I'm probably trying to decide whether to go out and buy a new PC in the January sales, or whether to hold on because Windows 7 is coming.
The exciting thing about Windows 7 is that it's built on the Vista foundation, so it will be able to take advantage of all the reliability and security of Vista. But what it also means is that if you were buying a new PC today and it was running Windows Vista, you can have confidence that same PC will run Windows 7 as well or better." surely the latter?
And, of course, he confirms that: "Windows 7 will be scaleable from a Netbook all the way up to a high-end PC." Which effectively spells the death knell for Windows XP, which has surely hung around longer than Microsoft ever anticipated, which Curran tacitly confirms: "Windows XP was built for a very different world. It launched in 2001. The first mainstream digital SLR came out in 2001. It was a Nikon, was over £3,000 and had 2 megapixel resolution."
"It wasn't an operating system designed to support all the thousands of files and all the entertainment options. It wasn't an always-on world, and broadband penetration was low. So naturally, people want a lot more from their operating system."
Curran won't, of course, come out and say Windows 7 is the operating system that Vista should have been. But by portraying it as just as secure as Vista, yet much leaner, meaner and faster, and more specifically designed for a Web-centric, social networking-obsessed world, he's effectively adding Vista, as well as the anachronism which is XP, to the scrap-heap. Let's hope that Windows 7's beta phase is short.
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