Five Vista perception problems Windows 7 must overcome

Poor Windows 7. Months before its official launch, it's already fighting to live down the reputation of its older siblings. It's bad enough it has to fight perceptions of insecurity (I'm looking at you, XP) and bloated incompatibility (Vista, anyone?). But like the poor kid entering a high school after his older brothers have spent years being serially suspended for misbehaviour and general hooliganism, Windows 7 has an uphill battle ahead of it. Whether the perceptions are earned or not is irrelevant. Undoing them is a monumental process either way, and it all rests on the shoulders of a kid whose only mistake seems to lie in carrying the family name.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)But undo these perceptions it must. Windows 7 promises to be Microsoft's most crucial launch ever because the company's very future has never been in as much question as it is now. Its two cash cow franchises, Windows and Office, are mooing a little less deeply these days thanks to a seismic shift away from the traditional PC model. While Vista's problems are more perception than anything else, there's no escaping the cruel reality that the age of Windows-everywhere-by-default is over. As conventional desktop and laptop PCs give way to all sorts of new form factors running all sorts of new operating systems and connecting to the outside world in all sorts of unconventional ways, Microsoft can't afford another lukewarm Windows launch.

So far, at least, Windows 7 looks like Microsoft's best bet yet to lay to rest long-held perceptions that its OS offerings are bloated malware magnets that needlessly clutter end-users' lives. Before Microsoft declares ultimate victory, however, it needs Windows 7 to overcome five key perception challenges:

1. It's a security nag

Microsoft blew it big time with its nag-in-a-box approach to Vista security. While more savvy users could easily tweak the settings to stop the annoying reminders from popping up every third mouse click, most users lack the time and ability to dig into the guts of the OS and make the changes themselves. Windows 7, which promises to ship with even more robust security capabilities, will at least be configured out of the box to be somewhat less annoying than a late night infomercial pitchman.

2. It's a security black hole

Dominating the market for so long makes you an easy target for all sorts of malevolence. Hackers and criminals target Windows because it's more fun to inflict damage on hundreds of millions of Microsofties than a few million Linux users. As much as critics like to knock Windows for being the security equivalent of Swiss cheese, Microsoft's become quite effective at identifying vulnerabilities and closing gaps. Windows 7 should only extend that robustness -- assuming end users continue to hold up their end of the bargain.

No discussion of Windows security is complete without putting it into an Apple context. While Apple fans fervently believe their beloved Macs are completely impervious to viruses, Trojans, worms and related nasties, the sad truth is Macs have gotten off because their single-digit market share wasn't large enough to make the investment worth it for hackers. As Apple's market share continues to grow, that will almost certainly change.

(And before you slam be for being anti-Apple, a bit of disclosure: I've got an iMac and a Mac mini in my home office, happily coexisting alongside Windows Vista, XP and, horrors, 98. I love my Macs, too, but I don't believe in blind worship.)

3. Macs do stuff that Windows can't

I get that some things may be easier or more elegant on one or, to be fair, the other. I often find myself shifting work between Mac and Windows machines because my brain works better in that OS for that particular task. For everyone who says only a Mac can do video or music production, I can find two people who beg to differ. I have no problem being a multimedia maven on my Vista machine, and my experiences with Windows 7 betas convince me the experience will only improve. It's time to discard 1980s-era OS-based xenophobia. Times have changed.

4. It's bloated

Microsoft knew it had a problem when users openly campaigned to extend XP's availability and support. The fact that Vista has almost zero presence in the fast-growing netbook space illustrates how critical it is for Microsoft to return to a lean and mean OS methodology. We don't need slick-looking interfaces that subsequently bog down system performance. We need elegant, simple environments that make the best use of whatever modern hardware we may be using.

Now that Microsoft has decided to remove the silly three-application limit from Windows 7 Starter Edition, Windows users looking for a light and agile OS that runs on lower-powered hardware no longer have to downgrade to XP. Windows 7 on netbooks is the clearest message yet that this is not your father's Vista.

5. It has lousy compatibility

Microsoft deservedly took it on the chin for chintzy driver compatibility when Vista was first released. It's done a much better job reaching out to hardware vendors throughout the Windows 7 development process to minimize the number of stranded pieces of hardware this time out.

Can you ever hit 100% compatibility? No. But the scanner that I never managed to get working with Vista worked just fine with the last Windows 7 beta. And, no, not even my Macs could make that claim.

Although it's still too early to divine whether or not Windows 7 will save the franchise for Microsoft, we do ourselves no favors by writing it off simply because of broad-based -- and often wrongly-formed -- perceptions. Like that high school kid forced to live down his older brothers' reputations, we at least owe him the courtesy of hearing him out and letting him perform on his own merits before we cast judgment. People, after all, can change. Families can, too.

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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