Windows 7, the next version of Microsoft’s flagship product, is still at least a year away from final delivery, but the operating system already appears to be shaping up as the successor to XP that businesses were expecting Windows Vista to be.
Microsoft made available to developers a pre-beta release of Windows 7 at its Professional Developer Conference (PDC) last week.
Unlike with Vista, the application programming interface set is already
complete, meaning that
vendors should have ample time to prepare software and drivers for the final release. The company has also paid closer attention to feedback from customers, with the result that many of the issues with Vista have been addressed.
New features focus on boosting productivity and making it easier for IT departments to deploy and manage Windows 7 PCs on a corporate network.
“Windows 7 has enough compelling aspects that users will probably want it. Like with Windows 95, I can see adoption being driven by user demand,” said Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle. Many of the improvements are designed to make it easier to find information and accomplish key tasks, such as connecting to a network. The user interface has been streamlined, and touches added such as the ability to quickly peek into lots of open windows to find the one you are looking for.
Many issues with Vista were caused by its User Access Control security feature, which caused problems in applications requiring full administrator privileges. Microsoft said that many of these issues have since been fixed in the Service Pack 1 release of the platform, and that Windows 7 has inherited the changes.
Poor performance was another criticism levelled at Vista, and Microsoft claims that Windows 7 is faster to boot up and shut down, and has a reduced code footprint.
Speaking at PDC, senior vice president for Windows Steven Sinofsky said that any system that can run Vista would be faster on Windows 7, and even claimed a satisfactory level of performance on mini-laptops.
Windows 7 also adds a number of business-friendly features such as application whitelisting, support for BitLocker encryption on USB Flash disks, and tools to help fix application compatibility issues.
Whitelisting is provided by a feature called AppLocker that enables administrators to control which applications are allowed to run on the network.
“This makes life easier for administrators, as they can blanket approve stuff across the network,” said Enderle. But companies will need to upgrade their infrastructure to Windows Server 2008 R2 to support this feature.
Bitlocker To Go extends Microsoft’s encryption tool to cover removable media such as USB Flash disks.
Administrators can force users to encrypt before they can move data from the corporate network.
According to Microsoft, this can allow particular applications, only specific applications, or all applications signed by a particular publisher.
“There was probably not a security guy in the audience who didn’t perk up when they heard that,” said Enderle.
Windows 7 will also have the ability to preserve user data during a re-image of the system, making the process much simpler.
Microsoft said administrators could potentially just give users a USB stick with the image on and have them run the upgrade.
Another feature, DirectAccess, enables mobile workers to securely connect to resources on the corporate intranet without having to use a virtual private network (VPN).
“The ability to just open up a secure tunnel on the fly is cool, and you don’t have to live in a VPN, which can be a drag on your computer’s performance,” said Enderle. This feature will also require Windows Server 2008 R2.
Windows 7 is not expected to ship until late in 2009 at the very earliest, and so migration plans for large organisations are likely to be some time away.
But because the platform is built on the foundations of Vista, companies are less likely to experience the same kind of difficulties that Vista early adopters had, and can even use Vista for pilot deployments.
Microsoft heads into the cloud
Microsoft also unveiled Windows Azure, a pay-as-you-go hosting environment for developers to deploy applications for cloud-based computing using existing tools, allowing companies to quickly deploy scalable systems.
The software will form a third tier in computing architecture above desktop PCs and network domains, according to Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie.
He said Azure is not yet ready for commercial deployment, but Microsoft is using it internally and working with some customers to build out the platform. It is designed to go beyond the inward-facing scope of most IT infrastructures to reach out over the web. “We’re setting the stage for the next 50 years of computing,” said Ozzie.
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