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Windows 7 review: A closer look at this operating system for business

In this Windows 7 review, learn about the business benefits, new features, compatibility issues and licensing concerns of Microsoft's newest operating system.

Windows 7 features stand in stark contrast to those of its precursor, Windows Vista. By carefully managing changes, ensuring application and driver compatibility with Vista and working to improve the resource utilization and performance of the OS, Microsoft has a version of Windows that many businesses will be willing to deploy -- particularly now that Windows XP is in extended support. In this podcast, Michael Cherry, research vice president at Directions on Microsoft, offers a Windows 7 review and outlines the features and benefits of the operating system most likely to interest the business.

Cherry also addresses some of the following points about Windows 7:

  • Barriers to adoption, including architectural changes and user account control.
  • Security upgrades.
  • Licensing concerns.
  • Direct access into branch cache.

 BIOGRAPHY: Cherry focuses exclusively on Microsoft in his role at Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft. Before joining Directions, he was a Microsoft employee for more than 10 years, where he held a variety of technical and marketing positions, including program manager for Windows Embedded and Windows 2000 IntelliMirror. He also worked as a technical evangelist for Microsoft's developer relations group, advising independent software vendors with ERP and accounting products on how to exploit Microsoft's platforms for their products. He was also a senior architectural engineer at Microsoft.

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Windows 7 review

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Hello. My name is Karen Guglielmo, the executive editor for the CIO/ IT Strategy Media Group at TechTarget, and I'd like to welcome you to today's expert podcast on Windows 7, an operating system for business.

I'd like to first welcome today's speaker, Michael Cherry, research VP, operating systems at Directions on Microsoft, an independent analyst firm focused exclusively on Microsoft. Before joining Directions, Michael was an employee of Microsoft for more than 10 years, where he held a variety of technical and marketing positions, including program manager for Windows Embedded and Windows 2000 IntelliMirror. He also worked as a technical evangelist for Microsoft's Developer Relations Group, advising independent software vendors with enterprise resource planning and accounting products on how to exploit Microsoft's platforms for their products. He was also a senior architectural engineer for Microsoft, assisting Microsoft's large corporate customers in understanding Microsoft's strategy and product directions.

Welcome, Michael.

Cherry: Hello, Karen. Thanks for having me today.

As I mentioned earlier, we're here today to talk about Windows 7, an operating system for business. Michael will spend the next 10-plus minutes discussing the features, compatibility issues and benefits of Windows 7 most likely to be of interest to the business. So Michael, let's get started.

Cherry: The place I like to start is just to discuss for a moment where Windows 7 lies in terms of, is it a major release or is it an intermediate release? Where does it sort of fit on that scale? I think that scale is important. I think to be a major release, an operating system has to have some level of architectural or foundational difference between the new release and its precursor. And one of the good things about Windows 7 is that that is not the case. There is no architectural change, and this is good. You don't want two major architectural changes in a row. Microsoft, I think is making a bit of a mistake here because they keep saying, "This is a major release, it's a major release." I keep thinking that the word they really want is important. It is an important release. There are some really good things in this, particularly when you look at the perception that Vista is bad and Windows Server is good because they both use the same code basis. So what's the difference? The difference is in the perceptions. Server also uses roles to control what's installed. That wouldn't be bad idea for Windows 8. Imagine a Windows for consumers where there was a game role, and a business role and a home role or a consumer or entertainment role.

So, a lot of my early thinking about Windows 7 and a lot of my review was based around looking at the changes. I noticed that many of the changes were directly addressing some of the negative perceptions or barriers that customers had to using Vista. So in some cases, these barriers are removed by just the passing of time. So for example, more applications are now compatible with the architectural changes that they made. In other places, they've actually gone back in and re-engineered pieces or added features to make it better. So what were some of those barriers that people had?

Well, the first one was probably poor application compatibility. Lot of the applications people used on Windows XP didn't run well on Windows 7. A lot of the device drivers that people used with hardware that worked with XP didn't work well with Vista. That comes back to the architectural change. The architectural change was significant between XP and Vista. That's why some of this occurred. With Windows 7, there really are less changes, therefore most applications that work on Vista should work on Windows 7 without any changes. Why do I say most instead of all? The answer lies in some low-level software -- antivirus is an example, or imaging software that can make a ghost image of an entire hard drive -- that kind of low-level software, that works sort of directly with the hardware at a very very low level. … You almost have to buy a new release of that kind of software with each release [of a new OS]. But your desktop applications and corporate applications -- if they run with Vista, they will probably run with Windows 7.

User account control was another barrier. People felt it was too obtrusive. This is a strange barrier. On one hand, Microsoft was doing the right thing. They really needed to make this change to Windows -- it was an important change for security purposes. But what we can argue with Microsoft about was the way they implemented it. It was very obtrusive. In early days of running Vista before a lot of the apps were fixed, you would receive these messages asking you to confirm you were going to do something -- all the time. The messages were constantly popping up. So the Windows team has worked hard to ensure that if you want to use user control, and I'm sure you do, that you find it far less obtrusive. It will only interrupt you for additional permissions when it truly needs to.

Another perception that people have, and it's very common, is that they say that Windows is too bloated. IT has grown too big over the years, takes up too much space and is too slow on their processors. Microsoft has started to look at this, and what we're seeing is that a lot of the entry-level applications, such as Movie Maker, email service, calendar and Windows Mail, have been moved from the OS. If you want them, you can download them from Windows Live, and we think some OEMs will pre-install them as well. But you do have a choice of getting a slimmer or trimmer version of Windows.

People also complain that Windows starts too slowly. This is true of all the operating systems these days. They almost all lie to us. They'll give us the appearance that they're starting up. They'll draw the background and load the image of the desktop right away. But as soon as you click on something, it'll give you a cursor to tell you to wait. So you're teased into thinking it's starting fast. But the reality is that it isn't started till you can do something. My opinion is that it isn't started till I can get into email and read my email. So what have they done to address this? They've changed the service control manager -- this is an automatic tool within the operating system which starts many of the services you need to have running on the OS. But in the past, you could either start these services manually or have them start automatically. The only problem with automatic is they all started when you powered on the machine. So they've added a new way to trigger services starting. Where certain events, such as joining the Active Directory domain or plugging a printer into a plug-and-play port, or a camera into a USB port, will trigger the services related to that printer or camera to start up.

For businesses, a key factor was security. I was surprised because I thought Vista was going to do better in the market than it did. And that was because it contained a technology called BitLocker. BitLocker allows you to encrypt the hard drive. We've all seen these headlines, it happens about once a month. Some organization has a laptop stolen or more likely misplaced. The number of laptops left at security checkpoints at the airport is astounding. BitLocker's job was to ensure that if you did lose control of your PC, no one can access your files. They might own the physical hardware at that point, but they would have to completely repartition the hard drive and reinstall an operating system. And they would never be able to get at your data. However, BitLocker, while it was available in the higher editions of Windows, was very complicated to set up. You had to change the partitioning of your hard drives, it was awkward to install and there was a lot of confusion about it. In addition, it uses a trusted platform module, which is not installed in all the computers. So now those are more available and Bit Locker works very cleverly now. It's pretty much transparent to get it installed. In addition, there's a feature called BitLocker To Go. It allows you to extend the BitLocker protection to removable USB flash drivers.

So the last big barrier is that there were no features for the business. Vista was almost seen as interesting for users, but businesses were saying, why should we bother as a business? And to address that kind of concern and to make sure there is something for the business, Microsoft has added direct access in BranchCache into Windows 7. Direct access provides for better connections for remote workers. It's kind of a VPN on steroids, that's already included in the OS. BranchCache makes it more efficient for organizations that have a branch office and they can minimize the movement of documents between headquarters and branch offices because the majority of documents needed in the branch offices are likely in the cache.

Finally, they also included Virtual PC with Windows XP mode. This was designed specifically for businesses. So that if there is an application that the business still needs to use and it hasn't been updated since XP, the application runs on XP but will not run on Vista or Windows 7. Business customers will be able to run it in the Virtual PC with the Windows XP mode.

So those are kind of the ways I look at the operating system. It's important and the reason I think business customers should look at it is because it has removed these barriers or concerns they might have had.

Thank you, Michael. I do have one question for you, though: Why is Microsoft licensing so confusing for users?

Well, Microsoft has a tendency to use a new release as an opportunity to revise the licensing terms and conditions. And in this case, with Windows 7, they've done it again. And there are some things better than before, some are worse. But in general, they're different. The problem is that it's complicated by a number of factors, including what you're running today, whether or not the OS you're running today is covered by Software Assurance and then where do you want to get to -- what version of Windows 7 do you want to get to. It's so hard because when you do these discussions, the questions you get are very specific to an organization's needs and very difficult to cover in a global sense. That's why Directions on Microsoft has put together some licensing boot camps where we can take the time to go over all these intricacies and all the rules about licensing.

On that note, that does conclude today's podcast. If you'd like to hear more from Michael on this topic or other related Microsoft licensing topics, attend a licensing boot camp, hosted by Directions on Microsoft. Just visit www.directionsonmicrosoft.com and click on the link to the licensing boot camp in the right column of the home page. And thanks again to Michael Cherry for speaking with us today, and thank you all for listening. Have a great day

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