Just as we got comfortably settled in with Windows 7, Microsoft dropped a little surprise on us in the form of Windows 8, a radical redesign of the operating system we are all so familiar with, preparing it for the touch/tablet age.
It really should come as no surprise. Microsoft wants to get back on a release cadence of about three years for its operating system. It let six years go by between Windows XP and Vista, and Vista was a hairball. That's one reason why XP has been so hard to uproot.
The issue now for the 50-odd percent of people still running XP or Vista (according to StatCounter) is should I stay or should I go? (Apologies to Mick Jones.) Do I jump to Windows 7 now, with a new OS 12 to 18 months away - that's the projected time as Microsoft has given no timeline), or will Windows 8 bring enough change to justify waiting for it?
The pre-beta version of the software gives us a good idea of what Steve Sinofsky and his troops have in mind. However, this is subject to change based on how the OS matures and ripens over time.
Windows 7 is a solid release. There is no disputing that. Even Linux die-hards grudgingly called it "Vista done right," with "right" being the operative word. You'll also notice Apple has stopped running the "Get a Mac" ads.
Windows 7 is at Service Pack 1 now. Normally, service packs are where Microsoft rolls up both bug fixes and adds new technologies, but Windows 7 really didn't need it. SP1 was a roll up release of previous patches. Licensing terms are said to be at bargain prices. So there is no logical reason to shun it.
But there are good reasons to embrace it, especially if you have custom apps. Those need to be ported, tested and qualified for Windows 7's new security model (improved UAC, advanced memory checking for hiding malware, protected mode for Internet Explorer), the move to 64-bit computing with Windows 7 and greatly updated kernel, which featured improved protections against malware, memory management changes and improvements in multi-core support. Since Sinofsky has promised that all apps that work on Windows 7 will run on Windows 8), Windows 7 absolutely should be your baseline. Note, however, that backwards compatibility is only promised on x86 hardware. ARM-based devices are not slated to run today's crop of Windows apps.
Windows 7 has also preserved Window's infamous backwards compatibility, if not natively, than through the use of baked in virtualization, a feature called XP mode, otherwise known as Virtual PC. Backward compatibility has been Windows biggest strength and weakness as it allows users to preserve their investments in software while upgrading the OS. But it has also kept Microsoft from innovating as much as it could. And it has lead to dreadfully long boot times for Windows 7 - a major complaint for most W7 users.
So what of Windows 8? Well, based on my experience with it, I can't help but feel it's a tablet OS being up-ported to the PC. Many of the visual features, starting with the Metro UI, are perfect for a tablet and perhaps a touch-screen kiosk or something like a point-of-sale system, but not for a desktop/laptop PC user.
Microsoft has promised that the traditional desktop will be supported in Windows 8, and that the desktop experience overall will be "just another app," described Sinofsky, meaning users will be able to flip between a traditional desktop and the Metro UI.
Still, the fact that Explorer is not the default desktop and, at least for now, there is no setting it to be the default desktop, I suspect will cause a great deal of consternation in IT departments. Any apps tied to the Explorer, for example, will likely be broken or impacted in some way when Explorer is not the default desktop. I have to think there is some pushback taking place behind the scenes as businesses evaluate the pre-beta release.
It's a peculiar direction. Microsoft is turning its desktop OS into a consumer, tablet OS, at the same time it's building Windows Server 8 to be the ultimate cloud computing operating system. There seems to be a disconnect here, and I really think Microsoft is making a mistake of not following Apple's example and separate the tablet and desktop/laptop OS.
All that said...
On the desktop, Microsoft has promised any machine that can run Windows 7 today will run Windows 8, and Microsoft is saying that Windows 8 will actually boast lower hardware requirements. If by chance an app won't run on Windows 8, the integration of Hyper-V will offer even better virtualization than the basic Windows XP emulation mode found in Windows 7.
The elimination of the Start menu in favor of just typing the app name is great. The speed improvements coupled with the new UEFI technology means no more powering on the PC and walking away for a while.
Windows 8 will feature a dramatically souped-up Task Manager that might actually be useful. It's about time they brought over some of the technology from SysInternals. Mark Russinovich has been with Microsoft long enough.
Windows 8 will be the most graphically-aware OS yet, with DirectX 11.1 putting your GPU to considerable use for 3D and even 2D graphics acceleration. At the same time, Microsoft is finally stepping up to make bad-behaving GPU drivers be a little less troublesome and less likely to take down your system.
Security also continues to mature, with things like scanning USB devices before the OS loads to catch malware, and the potential for facial recognition as a means of security.
I can see an awful lot to like in Windows 8. So perhaps it's me who has to get past the Metro hangup. We shall see. But be it Windows 7 or 8, there's little reason for not consigning XP and Vista to the scrap heap.