When it comes to operating systems, Windows users are a sedentary bunch. The average PC user considers his OS as integral a part of his system as his motherboard. Upgrading to a new OS without simply buying a new machine altogether is an alien concept. Of course, the average PC user spent most of the last decade safely behind the wheel of the Windows XP, but a few years with a stable OS doesn't qualify you to tool around under a PC's hood any more than owning teeth qualifies you to be a dentist.
Microsoft ignored this simple rule with its 2007 release of Windows Vista. Vista was developed at an inopportune time; XP had not outlived its usefulness, and many consumers saw no need to move on to new hardware. Consequently, Vista was marketed toward machines on which it had no business being installed, by users who had no business installing an OS in the first place.
With Vista, Microsoft introduced a class of marginally tech-savvy users to concepts they weren't meant to know. After seeing the amorphous, gibbering underbelly that is an OS without adequate hardware support, these disillusioned users retreated to the safety of XP in droves, spawning "downgrading" as a positive term in the process.
Windows 7, Vista's upcoming successor, was designed with these failures in mind. After begging, pleading, and cajoling the same users who were turned hostile by Vista, Microsoft's white flag will see retail release in a month, whereupon Vista will undoubtedly be unceremoniously forgotten.
But what about users clever enough to know how to tinker with a PC without destroying it? Is there an option for the user geeky enough to confidently install a new OS but thrifty enough to hesitate at buying a brand-new machine?
My go-to hardware—a laptop new enough to have a "Windows Vista Capable" sticker but old enough to have a larger "DESIGNED FOR WINDOWS XP" sticker above it—is a poster child for Vista's reach exceeding its grasp. But would it fare any better under a Win7 regime? After snagging a copy of Win7's Release Candidate, I decided to find out the hard way.
Installation was painless, as Windows installs go. An hour after I burned the install DVD, Win7 was up and running. Not "running" as a half-hour install followed by several hours hunting down device drivers and OS patches, but really, truly running, with all devices at the ready and all system settings at an optimal level between flash and performance.
Surprisingly, Win7 doesn't require a total sacrifice of its higher-level functions for acceptable performance on older machines. Moore's Law considers my laptop obsolete, but Win7 nonetheless runs an assortment of enhancements—notably Windows Aero, a desktop enhancement included with Vista but commonly disabled to stabilize performance—and desktop gadgets flawlessly.
From the user's perspective, Windows 7 is a heavily modified version of the interface first introduced with Windows 95. The deck chairs have been rearranged, but Win7 is Windows' next generation in the most literal sense, even going so far as to allow users to revert their interface to a Win9x analog while retaining some of Win7's advanced functions. It doesn't purr like a kitten on an older machine, but performance (at least in my experience) has typically been just short of XP's on the same hardware.
Operating systems are at their best when they sit down, shut up, and do exactly what the user wants. The truest test of an OS is how quickly the user forgets about it, and Win7's greatest strength may be the ease with which it accomplishes just that. What were once necessary evils in the user experience—peripheral installation wizards, wireless connection functions, and so forth—see updates in Win7 designed to either hide them altogether or guide the user through them, and through the complications which inevitably accompany them, in plain English.
Unfortunately, that all-important stealth is violated in one area: price. With upgrade prices starting at $120, Win7—despite substantial gains in usability and reliability over Vista—remains a tough sell for the XP owner who has everything he needs in a slightly outdated interface. Without a hook beyond its usability, Win7 remains little more than a better version of what many users already have.
That hook may eventually come in the form of the inevitability which Vista never found. Windows 7 will be more successful than Vista; Microsoft's aggressive push of it as the streamlined version of Vista they meant to release all along has already given it substantial, if tentative, positive recognition. As older XP machines pass the point of obsolescence which Vista was too early to exploit, more PC users will finally take that once-a-decade upgrade plunge. Windows 7 will achieve market saturation, and software developers will follow suit.
When that happens, the fundamental differences between Win7 and XP will finally relegate XP to the corporate-level terminal market. Luckily, when Win7 does become a necessity, it will do so without condemning every piece of hardware that came before it to the scrap heap.