We begin our day today with Microsoft’s Readiness day not with a bang, or a whimper but with an epic failure to anticipate problems. I go to log into the event and just minutes after it was supposed to start at 9am (8am PST), I get this beautiful little notice:

So let me get this straight, the Microsoft HQ with some of the most highly trained software and networking professionals in the world, with godlike bandwidth flowing to and fro, failed to anticipate the high volume of people attending their virtual event and ended up overextending their bandwidth? Good grief guys, not the most faith-instilling problem to see. Now granted, I don’t know what their actual problem is, could be internal server routing or something similar, but still. You’ve been preparing this for how long, and had to delay? Tsk tsk.

Now, to their credit however, I’ve been running the Windows 7 Beta for months and the RC since May 2nd thanks to MSDN with little difficulty. So far I’ve been extremely impressed with Windows 7’s stability, interface, and functionality. Granted, since installing the x64 RC, I’ve had a nightmare of a time with drivers but that is to be expected. After all, the OS isn’t actually released yet & I’m running x64 which is a pain in the ass to use even under Vista and XP still sometimes. So I’m not holding that against them yet.

Other then the driver issues, I’ve found my HP Pavilion dv5000 runs quite a bit quicker than it did under Vista, and I like Vista. And actually, in all honesty, it even performs a bit better than it did under XP. But I was running 32 bit XP Pro, so I may be able to attribute that to running x64 on my AMD Turion 64 ML-40 processor. I haven’t dared test it on my desktop yet because my desktop is a gaming machine, and anything that could potentially harm my performance in games is simply not acceptable. Especially with the Lanageddon event here in Calgary coming up in just a few short weeks. I need my machine in top performance to kick some n00blets in the ass and hopefully even earn some prizes. I may either image my drive and try Windows 7 out, or wait until after the event to do so. We’ll see how that plays out.

So here we are at 10:00am (9am their time), and I get to see another eye-pleasing little image:

Now I’ll give them this. It IS a pretty little picture for something thrown up in probably about 5 minutes. So now I wait more. I however am not patient, so they’re thanking me for nothing. This is however somewhat reminiscent of a certain, infamous Windows 98 demo with Bill Gates and probably the most famous BSOD in history.

Now, all kidding and poking fun at Microsoft aside, once the webcast started, things improved immediately. They outlined a massive amount of information about Windows 7, as well as got into Server 2008 R2 a bit. Now with the sheer volume of information provided I won’t be going into huge detail over what is offered, you can do that for yourself at any one of their several websites. The most important of which I believe is http://www.microsoft.com/springboard which was referenced several times during the event. Below I’m going to outline the features and information that got my attention the most (and didn’t put me to sleep listening to). This will cover a little of the UI itself, the different flavours of Windows 7 as compared to Vista, and the most compelling features included in the OSes.

A lot of what I will discuss below is features that are included in Windows 7 Professional and up because that is mostly the way today’s event was oriented. This isn’t to say that Home Premium won’t have its place; it’s just that this particular event was geared towards VARs, LARs, and System Builders as well as other IT professionals. Of course, the other side of the coin is that this is all information directly from Microsoft’s people. Whether or not any or all of the features will turn out as effective, or function the way I talk about them is still yet to be seen. I’m not providing this information to critique the OS, only outlining my thoughts on it. If you really want to know just how well this entire OS works for yourself, do what I have been doing. Get your copy of the RC and start playing with it. See for yourself exactly how well Microsoft has done this time.

Windows 7 certainly promises a lot, and the way this describes its capabilities, features, and potential got even me a little excited about the new OS. But it’s important to remember that all of this is based on Public Relations image and getting the product into people’s hearts right now. So, as with anything produced by a major company take this with a grain of salt.

The best place to start is the most basic part of any Windows operating system. Something all Windows 7 versions have in common, and something we will all have to deal with. The User Interface. Now, I like Vista because it’s pretty. The shiny little start menu sphere, the aero interface, it’s all pretty. But let’s face it, the Windows Vista UI though graphically different doesn’t offer many more features then the XP one. Windows 7 changes this too.

The first and most obvious change, of course, is the taskbar. Instead of having your programs setting there as long rectangles showing the icon and title, they’re much more Mac OS X dock-like; just simple little squares with icons. That in itself isn’t so amazing, though a huge space saver for people that work on a lot of programs at once. But here’s where things get interesting. First of all, you can reorganize the task bar to your liking. You can drag the different icons around and reorder them so that they sit on there in the order you want. A simple but nifty little feature. This even extends to your system tray. You can move the system tray icons around by dragging them and put them in an order preferable to you as well.

With Windows 7 quick launch is gone away, but not forgotten. Instead of having your little quick launch icons sitting there, you can take those same programs, right-click on them and hit “Pin this program to the Taskbar”. So even when you close the program the icon for it remains, and with a single click can be reopened. I personally have gotten a lot of use out of this as I used to use my quick launch quite a bit under both XP and Vista. And this makes it way easier to manage as well.

So, back in the day with ICQ and later on with some other messengers, you could drag your contact list to the side of the screen, and when your mouse hit the edge, it would snap and lock the window to that side. Well Microsoft, like me, seems to miss this feature. But of course, they’ve taken it a step further. Any program window you have open, you can drag to the side or top of the screen and it “snaps” into place just like then. However, it does work a little differently in Windows 7. If you drag, say a excel spreadsheet to the left or right side of the screen until the mouse hits the edge, you get this little water droplet effect on the mouse cursor and a border appears covering that half of the screen. Let go, and your spreadsheet snaps in there and fills that half of the screen. Now say I have some info in a word document that I want to compare and move to the spreadsheet. I pop open my word doc, open the file, and do the exact same thing for the other side of the screen. “Snap” and now you have your docs side by side without fiddling with resizing or doing it by hand. On the same token, if you drag the window and snap it to the top of the screen it maximizes it. Not really useful imho due to the maximize button, but still interesting.

Now, say you’ve got MS Word 2007 pinned to your start menu, and you want to open it but you want to open a specific document right away. You could open the program go to your recent docs list and get it up, but Windows 7 has a better answer. Jumplists. Instead of just opening the program, right-click on it and immediately you get a menu of options. With Word in particular you have all your recently opened documents, with Live Messenger it gives you the option to change your online status, check your hotmail account etc. Now I use these examples because most people use at least one of these two programs in Windows regularly, but it’s not limited to those programs. A lot of programs support the jumplist capability already, and let me tell you, it is extremely handy.

There are a lot of other UI improvements too that I have left out that I would suggest taking a look at via the free RC download.

So let’s get to the Windows 7 editions. Like Vista there are several versions of the OS available. In Vista, depending on the product key you use, you get certain features of the OS installed. Now each flavour of the OS under Vista had its own unique image and feature set. Some features available in Home Premium weren’t in say Enterprise. The WAU program to upgrade your OS was terrible and broken. For Windows 7 Microsoft decided to take the one-image-installs-all they did with Vista to the next level.

Instead of each CD being able to install each different OS and feature-set. Every version of Windows 7 contains ALL the features and capabilities of ALL the different versions of the OS. So when you install Home Premium on your desktop, then go to work and start using Enterprise, you’re using the EXACT same OS. The difference is that depending on your product key and activation, each version will have a set of features enabled or disabled. This will most certainly breathe new life into the WAU program, and give IT professionals such as myself a thousand times less headaches when switching versions of Windows for our customers.

Another change in the versions of Windows category is the way they have set it up. Under Vista, each OS flavour had a different set of features entirely. Home Premium had the media center, whereas Enterprise didn’t. Microsoft has changed this in one simple way. Every progressive version of Windows 7 has all the features of the version that is a step down from it. So Enterprise will have all the features of the versions below it (Home Premium & Professional). Definitely an improvement.

Let’s take a look at the different editions and what they’re purposes are. Below is a quick list but I suggest looking at them through Microsoft’s website a little deeper than I do here.

  • Starter Edition – Now rumours about this edition have been circulating around the ‘net that this is the edition for Netbooks. That’s simply not the case. Starter edition just like every other edition of Windows 7 has the exact same system requirements. The only difference is that Starter edition can only run 3 applications at any given time and lacks almost all the core features of the other editions. What the true purpose of this edition really is, is beyond me, but one of my co-workers speculated that it is a low cost version for implementation in 3rd world countries. And since Windows 7 is backwards compatible with a lot of older hardware that Vista thinks it’s too good for, this could very well be true.
  • Basic Edition – I consider this more of an OEM distribution for bare bones type systems. In our modern marketplace it is very rare you will find PCs built and sold without an OS at all. Even if it isn’t Windows, a lot of manufacturers will stick Ubuntu on the box as a minimal OS environment. One reason for this is to make sure that the hardware works. Kinda hard to do any sort of QA if there’s no OS to do it with. The second in the case of Microsoft is their Partner agreements. Companies such as HP or Dell are bound by their agreement with Microsoft to provide an OS on every machine that is sold by their company. So Basic edition gives a bare bones OS with no limitations like Starter edition to get the machines out the door. Especially in cases where the customer has expressed that he will be using a different OS anyway. At least that’s my theory.
  • Home Premium – Very smartly, Microsoft has eliminated their Home edition from Vista, and gone straight to the Home Premium edition. They’ve intended this to be the real base install of Windows 7 for all machines. THIS is what should be put on netbooks as well as any system. As the name implies its feature set is designed for home entertainment, and gaming.
  • Professional – This is their other major edition in the Windows 7 line. They expect, like XP’s Home and Professional, these will be the core editions of 7. It builds on Home Premium with features and programs designed to assist small and medium businesses. One of these major features is XP Mode which I will discuss further on.
  • Enterprise – This is designed for large organizations and as such has a vast number of extremely powerful corporate mechanisms such as DirectAccess which could feasibly remove the need for VPNs completely on Windows Server based networks. It also has a nifty little feature called AppLocker which allows IT management not only to control which applications a computer can run or cannot run, but HOW those applications run.
  • Ultimate – Of course, Ultimate is exactly the same as Enterprise. The difference between the two editions from what I understand is simple. Ultimate is for single users. Enterprise is only available via Volume Licensing.
  • Now I know the one feature of Vista that has all pissed us off since it came out is that goddamned, p.o.s, vile UAC. While yes, it is an extremely effective tool in preventing a lot of problems, my first action when using any Vista machine is to turn that bastard off. The billions of warnings it issues drives me insane. With Windows 7 this little bastard isn’t quite as much of an annoyance as it used to be. In Professional edition and up, the UAC is configurable to the level of warnings you wish to see or rather not see. I’ve found the most effective level for me as a professional is the second lowest. 99% of the time I don’t see any warnings unless something very important and dangerous is being performed, such as a program altering Windows files or the registry. For the average user, The second highest setting is what I would suggest. And of course in a corporate or high security environment where your users may or may not know a lot about computers the absolute highest setting, despite the irritating warnings is still preferable.

    What’s another problem with Vista we’ve all experienced at once point? Good old OS and user migration. Vista wasn’t totally horrible at this, but it also wasn’t as good as it should have been. Microsoft addressed this incredibly well under Windows 7 as far as I can tell. I won’t go into details about the process, but under Windows 7 migrating a machine with many user profiles, a large amount of data, programs, and settings that are all required on the new machine can take as little as 20-30 minutes. Windows 7 doesn’t just copy files and change your registry, it will also install the software you want for you and then go ahead and configure that software to match the way it was configured on the old system. Microsoft is also offering the MAP toolkit which gives you even more options and variety to migrate over to Windows 7. You can find out more about it at http://www.microsoft.com/MAP

    Ok, so now it’s time to discuss my two favourite features of the new operating system. Now keep in mind both of these are not available in Home Premium at all. These are designed to help both Small Businesses and massive corporations out. But they are by far the most compelling reasons to migrate from XP to Windows 7. So without further adieu, here they are.

    The first feature comes with Windows 7 Professional and up. The Windows XP Compatibility Mode. Now, as soon as most of you hear that, you think about the option where you right click on a program, go to properties, and select a compatibility mode under Vista. XP also had this for Windows 98/2000. This is totally NOT what this feature is. Microsoft finally, after years realized that their stupid little compatibility option doesn’t bloody work for 90% of programs out there. So they took it to the next level: virtualization. Basically Windows 7 Professional and up comes with a Windows XP Virtual Machine built into the OS. Now, at this point I should note that this is only available on CPUs with virtualization instructions. So the Intel Virtualization code or the AMD-V code. Unlike your classic VMware machines or virtual PCs, this is not a PC environment. When you have enabled the virtualization options in Windows 7, a new program group is formed in your start menu. You add the programs to the XP compatibility mode, and voila, that’s it. Anything that you had running under XP now runs under Windows 7. You open the program; it pops up and does what it’s supposed to. The only real difference is that when running an XP virtualized program, instead of getting the Windows 7 Aero border around it, you get the ol’ fashioned blue XP themed border. No clumsy VM interface, no using multiple start menus, it just works. Now I’m sorry, I’m no MS fan boy, but that’s just freakin cool.

    The next feature is only available to Enterprise or Ultimate users with a Server 2008 R2 on the corporate end of things, but is just so important to mention. Microsoft has been looking at the way our modern world does secure connections to an internal network externally. You all know what I’m talking about here, the dreaded Virtual Private Network. Now, I only briefly had to use the Hewlett-Packard VPN myself, but I used to work for a company who specialized in providing internet solutions for hotel chains and VPNs were one of our biggest pains in the butt. VPNs take time to connect, require certain ports to be open, and all around usually slow down the traffic being sent to and from an internal network. In short, VPNs suck. So Microsoft said “Hey, ya know what? Fuck VPNs let’s do this native-style bitches.” And thus on the Nth day, DirectAccess was born. Another “It just works” style initiative, DirectAccess takes all the functionality of a virtual private network embedded into Windows 7 and makes it as quick and reactive as a standard internet connection. So let’s do a scenario here. You’re on your laptop at a hotel that has VPN ports blocked, and doesn’t play nice even if some cool ass technician like me forward you through the firewall temporarily, and you get an email. This email is from your CIO, giving you a link to a new application that you requested, or perhaps a file share for your work documents.

    Scenario A: VPN – So you try to connect up to the VPN and it fails. After hours of being on the phone with say me, we’re both sitting there going “GODDAMN VPNS!”. You obviously can’t click the link because you can’t get attached to the network so your S.O.L. You’re stuck waiting either to get home to your home connection where you can manage to VPN in or even waiting till your back internal on the corporate network. Either way you’re losing productivity and precious time. And even when you do get to your home network, we all know how fast VPN traffic can be. So your downloading say a 2 Meg presentation, it’s going to increase the time it takes to download it by a good chunk. Filthy filthy VPN.

    Scenario B: DirectAccess – Same hotel, same email, same file share. You’re connected to the internet, you get the email. What’s next? Go to the file share and download the file. Hell while you’re at it jump on the company intranet site and change your health benefits. Or maybe even Remote Desktop to your office computer and fiddle around with some stuff there. That’s it. If you have an internet connection, you have access to your office network. No connecting the VPN, no worrying about blocked ports. Again, it just works.

    Now you absolutely cannot tell me that is not cool. Whoo! Double negative! I rock!

    I have left out a huge amount of other features in Windows 7 and almost everything about Server 2008 R2, because quite honestly it would take me days to go into detail and list out everything about the new generation OS that Microsoft has promised. But like I said before, it still remains to be seen whether all these new features will work as well as Microsoft hopes. We all know about Microsoft’s bugs, vulnerabilities, and just plain failures in the past. So while it may seem I’m praising them a lot, I’m not. Everything discussed here and positively highlighted is only based on a fully working feature and what their PR people are promising. The fact of the matter is we don’t know what’s going to happen with Windows 7 yet. Only way to figure that out is to play with it. So one last time, I suggest to everyone, get the Windows 7 RC, install it, and use it! I mean it’s a free OS and will remain free until at least August of 2010, so why the hell not?

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