Windows 7, Microsoft's Midlife Crisis?

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Apr 28, 2009


Which lasts longer: an Apple computer or a jelly baby? One reason Apple will never supply enterprise operating systems is that the company treats its customers' investments in its products with contempt. It encourages them to buy machines based on a particular processor or OS, only to turn around and abandon it as the company switches to a newer processor or a different OS: MacOS, OS X, Motorola, PowerPC, Intel. Tomorrow ... who knows? That kind of behavior is fine when you're dealing with fanboys to whom you can do no wrong, but when it comes to business customers, it doesn't quite cut the mustard. That's one of the key reasons most businesses won't touch a Mac with a 10-foot barge pole.

OS Roundup: Moving on can be hard, whether in life or in the data center. To alleviate the latter, Microsoft typically offers backward compatibility. With Windows 7, it goes one further with XP mode.

Microsoft, you can argue, also treats its customers with contempt. Why else would it release products with so many security bugs? One reason that the company has such an overwhelming share of the enterprise OS market is because it is so obsessed with backward compatibility. If you've got a corporate app that was written for an old version of Windows, the chances are pretty good that it will run on a version that's still supported. Microsoft, for all its faults, rarely breaks old apps with new versions of Windows when it can help it, and it certainly doesn't expect customers to throw years of investment in bespoke mission-critical applications because it has decided on a whim — or to stimulate sales? — to re-architect its product line.

The downside of this approach is that stuffed into every new OS that Microsoft produces you'll find billions (not literally) of lines of code present to make legacy applications run. The amount of "backward compatibility code" accumulates the older Windows gets, just like emotional baggage can in a middle-aged adult that's been around a bit. The result, in both cases, is something unstable, insecure and a hostage to the past.

That's why Windows 7's recently announced XP Mode has left corporate IT bods gibbering with excitement. In a nutshell, XP mode is designed to ensure that anything that XP can do, Windows 7 can do, too. "All you need to do is to install suitable applications directly in Windows XP Mode, which is a virtual Windows XP environment running under Windows Virtual PC," Window 7 team member Scott Woodgate explained.

"The applications will be published to the Windows 7 desktop and then you can run them directly from Windows 7," he said. Wow. Apps running on Windows XP, but appearing on the desktop as if they were running on 7 — not in a separate Windows XP VM window: Now that, I think you'll agree, sounds pretty cool.

Windows XP Mode hasn't been officially unveiled, but if it works as described, then this could be the way forward for Microsoft, allowing it to move on without burdening its OSes with compatibility cruft. Future OSes could be lightweight, sleek and elegant, with older applications running in virtual environments and running legacy OSes when necessary.

"The implications of this are huge," said Windows watcher Paul Thurrott on his Windows Weekly podcast. "... going forward now you don't have to build all that applications compatibility baloney in to the operating system because you know that all these old applications will just run. It is huge."

XP Mode will require processor-based virtualization support, and it will be supplied as a free download to users of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate editions. Effectively, users will be getting a fully licensed copy of XP (for use in the virtual environment) for free.

Linux and Mac users can rightly point out that many Windows programs can be run on those platforms using WINE or in virtualization technology like that offered by Parallels, but Linux and WINE is not ready for prime time, and Macs are expensive enough as it is without having to buy Parallels and a copy of Windows XP as well.

Microsoft may not make the best software in the world, but many of its problems stem from its refusal to let go of its past. Virtualization may well turn out to be like a visit to the shrink for Windows: Allowing it to shed some its problems, change and move on without abandoning the long-term relationship with its customer base. It's a more mature approach to dealing with the past than Apple's strategy of simply walking out on relationships and trying to start over. And over. And over.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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