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However, much like the 90s was the decade of the Internet and the browser increasingly became the center of our world, this decade is about "the Cloud" and how we increasingly are living in it. The hot products over the last several years have been phones, not PCs. And increasingly they have been differentiated more by back-end offerings like Application Stores, location-based services, and streaming media.
Let's talk about my experiences so far with Windows 7 and then shift to what the elements are of what well be working from next decade as the market transitions to its next phase.
Windows 7 on 2 Desktops and a Netbook
Windows 7 runs fine on a Netbook and improves on Windows Vista in a number of ways. The improvements include a more intuitive user interface with fewer menus left over from Windows NT, less annoying warning messages, faster performance, a more advanced task bar, and vastly easier to set-up networking.
Currently I'm running it on two desktops as well, both on the other side of the performance curve. Both are I7-based, one running twin ATI 4870x2 cards with twin high-speed flash drives, and the other running three NVIDIA 280s and fast magnetic drives.
One big take away has been that flash, or Solid State Drives, makes a huge difference in performance and system noise. The other is the systems seem to be rock solid, incredibly fast, and generally much more capable networked.
I run twin 24" screens (used to run 4 19" screens) and I'm always losing windows. The new task bar is wonderful for finding stuff you have open on the desktop and manage it. This may, for me, be worth the price of admission for this thing all by itself because its a huge time saver.
Even games seem to be working better though, as is typically, I did have issues with the Antivirus product I use, which ironically, is Microsoft's own OneCare.
Overall this is what a maintenance release generally is, primarily a product that addresses the shortcomings of what came before. And Windows 7 is arguably the best general purpose PC operating system I have yet used, even though it is in beta. Still, and this is a rule I'm clearly breaking myself, I wouldn't use any beta product on a production platform and care still needs to be taken.
There was a 4th computer system I tried Windows 7 on and it didn't like it at all primarily because it hit the market after the beta of Windows 7 I'm using went out.
This means there are risks and you'll probably either want this on new hardware or want to wait a few weeks after launch before installing it so that others can discover all of the little surprises and fix them before they hit you.
Granted, launch is still some time out and we have yet to see Snow Leopard of if Google is rumored to have a Netbook version of Android in market. But if you are on a dying XP machine or frustrated with Vista it does give you something to look forward to.
Windows vs. The Cloud
I'm not going to bother with the typical Windows vs. the MacOS commentary because I think the real fight is brewing between desktop and Cloud-Based Portable Personality, not between companies that have PC offerings.
Apple's iPhone experience is much more compelling than their PC experience and I doubt it will be that long before elements of the phone start showing up on Apple PCs. And partially what makes it compelling is the Cloud-based Application Store and MobileMe (when it works).
But the real change appears to be being driven by Google, which was first to embrace "The Cloud" as a platform. And, much like PCs replaced mainframes, the Cloud blends a virtual client with a Cloud-based back-end and could, and likely will, replace PCs. Intel just announced a partnership with Citrix to get the client side of market there.
Microsoft's Unintentional Effort to Boost Macs
I've been thinking about this a lot because, right now, the PC market is truly broken. If we look back at Windows 95 we see that it was largely driven into business, particularly enterprises, like Smartphones are driven; by the user. But Microsoft made some licensing changes in the XP timeframe which makes it incredibly difficult for users to drive operating systems into businesses anymore and that has opened the door to Apple.
According to Laura DiDio's survey about 2/3rds of businesses are considering Macs largely because users are driving them into enterprises, much like they did Windows 95, and can't now do with Vista even if they wanted to.
This last is because consumer versions of Windows, by design, don't work with critical Enterprise infrastructure offerings like Active Directory. This last is kind of amazing because the MacOS actually is better in this regard than a home version of Windows.
I can imagine a young Bill Gates being dumfounded when he saw IBM intentionally cripple the PC Jr. and turn PC dominance into a disaster. I can imagine the Google kids doing the same thing when they look at Windows Vista Basic and Home Premium. Steve Jobs should send whoever came up with that idea a commission check.
This shows, however, that the market is willing to change but not necessarily to Macs.
The Need for Hardware Flexibility
One of the big problems is that while hardware units like Netbooks and MIDs continue to proliferate, enabling the possibility of multiple PCs per person software licensing still does not align with this usage model. And people don't want to buy or pay for upgrades for multiple copies of the same application. This is reducing hardware sales and increasing dissatisfaction with the PC platform.
In addition, we've moved from the desktop and onto the Internet for much of what we do. From corporate applications like Sales Force Automation and HR tools, things have been increasingly moved to the web and we find ourselves moving between smart phones, PCs (some of which may be borrowed), and increasingly Set Top boxes and TVs to get access to this stuff.
The market appears to be in the hunt for some kind of a virtual platform in the cloud supporting this concept of Portable Personality. And while Microsoft has the tools to make this happen, they are spread across a number of divisions and probably won't come together into a solution before someone else establishes the high ground.
Currently Lenovo and others are beginning to explore this concept of a personality in the sky and IBM began talking about this some time ago. RingCube actually announced a working product back in 2007 that didn't have the network dependency that typically plagues these things.
However we get there, I think what is moving to replace the PC is a platform that can deal with the vast variety of hardware that is being created, while maintaining both a consistency of user experience and personality across all of it.
In addition the result will tie the application rights to the users rather than hardware, assuring we have rights to use the software we purchased on any platform we chose at any time we need to. Our stuff anyplace we are: thats the goal the market is looking for.
Wrapping Up: The Future
I compare Windows 7 to Windows 95 and I see a lot gained, but I also see a lot that has been lost. The gains are largely technical and visual; the loss is the user needs that created the platform.
Needs that now require users more hardware freedom and easier access to the massive number of developers who are currently working on the iPhone and Android platforms. Perhaps the next big thing from Microsoft isn't Windows 7 or even Windows Mobile 7, but a blend of Microsoft technologies resulting in a flexibility that users have never before seen. It would be ironic if, like IBM who had a similar advantage in the 80s, someone else got there first. This will be where we find out whether Ray Ozzie can do the vision thing as well as Bill Gates did.