The Windows 7 launch: The cultural event of the entire afternoon

Have you reserved your copy of Windows 7 yet? Did you book off work? Get a babysitter for the kids? Stock up on Red Bull and Doritos?...No? If you're one of the dozens who pine for midnight door-crasher sales at the electronics big box store and Rolling Stones-themed launch events, you may want to make alternate plans.

For anyone who doesn't live in a cave in Afghanistan (and even for a few folks who do), this week could be the most exciting one in an age as Microsoft launches its newest -- and possibly company-saving -- operating system, Windows 7, on Thursday. But 14 years after it redefined the rock-star launch party with Windows 95, and nearly four years after having invested a half-billion dollars selling us Vista, this time around, Microsoft is taking a lower-key approach.

Don't start me up

The company isn't saying how much it plans to invest in marketing its new OS, but the message around the October 22 launch event itself suggests the days of Jay Leno hawking the OS to the tune of "Start Me Up" are firmly history. This Thursday, expect Steve Ballmer to deliver an uncharacteristically subdued message at the launch event -- no tossed chairs or spontaneous onstage cheers. The good times, for Microsoft and for us, ended a while ago.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)As much as we all pine for the days when a new operating system from Microsoft was a cultural event, the new reality is that hardly anything changes when a new OS is released. Given the back seat that operating systems in general now take with respect to other, sexier elements of the technology that increasingly defines our work and home lives, Win7 could be an absolute yawn.

When Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard replaced Leopard earlier this year, the underpinnings of the Mac universe remained largely as they had existed before. Likewise, don't expect Windows 7 to rewrite the history books. Your PC works just fine today, and it'll work just as fine on the 22nd and beyond, no matter what OS you run. Whatever comes next from any given vendor will forevermore be merely an evolutionary increment just beyond currently available offerings.

There's a reason an Apple iPhone-themed event often jumps into mainstream media, while an updated Mac OS stays firmly on the tech pages. Mobility is as sexy today as the desktop OS was 15 years ago, and each new release is, for now anyway, a quantum bump over the suddenly dowdy stuff we're carrying around in our pockets. But even this won't last forever: Hang around long enough and something will come along eventually to relegate mobile hardware and operating systems to a similar place. It's how tech works, and just as individual products have a limited shelf life, so, too, do entire categories.

Ah, what memories...

Too good for their own good

In so many ways, Microsoft and its mainstream consumer and enterprise OS competitors have done too good a job creating the ultimate in commoditized software. The modern OS is so ruthlessly capable of everything we demand of it, that choosing between them is largely a matter of personal taste. While the flame wars between Mac and Windows fans will continue until long after computers have morphed into tiny networked processors that are implanted into our heads at birth, it's a safe bet that you can get pretty much anything done on one that you can get done on the other.

Not every technological road is as drivable, of course. While some users may find certain functions easier on a given platform, the bad old days of locking yourself out of entire classes of software and functionality because you chose one OS over the other are pretty much over. We will, of course, save discussions on gaming for Macs for another day. Whatever apps you run, no matter what OS you choose, the borders that used to define your playground have long since been torn down. OS choice no longer defines how free you are to move data and workflow between machines or networks.

Where we're all headed: Up

Indeed, moving data around is an increasingly quaint notion thanks to the rise of the cloud. While Microsoft's recent unfortunate Sidekick data lost-and-found incident (whether or not you take Microsoft's word for it that the incident took place "below" the cloud somewhere) may have cast some well-deserved shadows on the cloud movement, the trend is unavoidable. You can resist entrusting your data to a Web-based service until you're blue in the face, but it's hard to ignore reality, and as Microsoft shifts its attention to its online offerings -- Azure's coming next month -- because, frankly, it has to, the locally-focused OS will gradually fade from its longstanding frontline role.

It's a bit of a tough pill to swallow, especially for those of us who remember the Windows 95 launch. It was as close to mainstream mania as Microsoft will ever get, and it marked the desktop operating system's coming out party after over a decade of living on mostly beige boxes in mostly corporate environments. As much as earlier versions of Windows had driven consumer adoption of PCs, it was Windows 95 that punched the OS into the average consumer's mind and convinced us all that PCs didn't just get work done. Windows 95 also made PCs fun, not to mention attainable and usable for the legions of folks who never got DOS and were still struggling to understand GUIs on the decidedly lame GUI of Windows 3.1.

As impressive a product as Windows 7 seems to be, it doesn't move the bar over Vista and XP as much as Windows 95 did over 3.1 and even DOS. Even if it did, we'd all be fogging the windows at the Verizon store, begging for some in-hand time with a new Droid-powered device. Which explains why I've already booked my time off from work, called the babysitter and stocked the fridge and pantry with enough munchies to feed an entire block party. We're still celebrating the introduction of new technology, except it no longer sits exclusively on a desk.


Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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