Windows 7, Vista SP1/SP2, XP SP3 – the Windows Cocktail

Shaken or stirred

Microsoft is brewing a Windows cocktail bound to be hard to swallow, either shaken or just stirred. The Redmond company's consistent headway in the development process of Windows 7 is forcing customers to consider a scenario where multiple possibilities weigh in balance. All because, Widows 7, Windows Vista Service Pack 1/SP2 and Windows XP (now with SP3) will be available on the market concomitantly. Albeit upgrading to Windows 7 might look like the easy way out, sticking with XP or with Vista, or migrating to Vista now, ahead of Win 7, are also valid answers. Microsoft is of course not much help, as it risks negatively affecting sales of the operating system, given the current context of the Windows client lifecycle.

But of course that the question remains, for both home and corporate users, “should I wait for Windows 7?” It's hard to take into consideration the Windows 7 product roadmap, as a definitive factor in mapping out the next move when it comes to Windows, since there is no official, confirmed timetable for the delivery of the next iteration of the Windows client. Microsoft continues to insist on a three-year gap between Vista GA and Windows 7 general availability. Information from a leaked product map for Windows 7 indicated October 2009 for the RTM of the operating system. The software giant has already wrapped up with the Beta and is already cooking the Release Candidate branch builds of Windows 7, RTM next, then GA. That much is certain. But in the end, to wait or not to wait for Windows 7 is a question of the users' environments in the context of the evolution of the technology landscape. Or a case of tell me what you're running so I can tell you what to upgrade to.

Windows Vista

With a usage share of over 22%, according to statistics from Net Applications, Windows Vista has long passed the 200 million sold licenses milestone. For users that have already jumped aboard the Vista wagon, Windows 7 will represent an opportunity to upgrade to Vista R2. Even if labeled as the seventh version of the Windows client, the actual version number of Windows 7 is 6.1, in an effort to preserve compatibility with existing hardware products and software solutions. In this regard, Microsoft aims to deliver an evolution in terms of performance, features, capabilities, usability, reliability and compatibility moving from Vista (v6.0) to Windows 7 (v6.1).

“We made huge changes ‘under the hood’ that made it difficult for driver and application developers to ramp up – as a result, the Windows ‘ecosystem’ was not prepared. Vista itself had some problems with performance and stability that were fairly well publicized (and the Mac vs PC ads definitely didn’t help)…so 2007 was a rough year for adoption. The beginning of 2008 saw the release of Service Pack 1, and a year’s time had given our partners a chance to get their hardware, drivers, and applications updated for the latest operating system release. So, the folks who have seen and used Vista over the past twelve months probably have had a good experience with it. We’re finding that the major problem out there today is public perception,” explained Mike Fiorina, Microsoft technology specialist.

By mid-2009, with speculation pointing to April, Microsoft will offer Service Pack 2 for Windows Vista. SP2 is designed to take Vista a step forward, but of course that the operating system won't be in any way on par with Windows 7. Consumers that will want to enjoy the evolution of the graphical user interface along with Windows 7 specific features such as the multi-touch interaction model on new hardware will have to buy at least an upgrade package with the new operating system. But of course that there are those who continue to see Windows Vista as the core behind the bells and whistles of Windows 7. Microsoft has already confirmed officially that it has started, let's not call it working but planning, on Windows 8. But even with the most optimistic estimates, Windows 8 is at least three years away. Vista users that want more and that are not ready to wait until 2012-2013 for Windows 8 should move to Windows 7. In terms of hardware, machines tailored to Vista will be able to run Windows 7 not only with no problems, but actually with superior results.

And yet, there are those that just now are starting to embrace Windows Vista. “Enterprise adoption is about what we saw with Windows XP 2 years after its release. The one recurring theme in discussions with corporate customers is that application compatibility is a problem. Applications may not run in Vista, or maybe they can, but it’s not supported by the vendor. Remediation will be costly and time consuming. We get it. Many of the acquisitions and investments we’ve made in the past few years are targeting that problem specifically (Application Virtualization – SoftGrid, Enterprise Desktop Virtualization – Kidaro, etc.) Operating systems are traditionally tied to hardware, user data, and applications. We want to decouple them so that it is feasible and relatively easy to perform an in-place OS migration. Our Desktop Optimization Pack technologies are a must have for those considering an upgrade any time soon,” Fiorina added.

Windows XP

Home and corporate users running XP are running an eight-year-old operating system. Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer recently was cited pointing out that corporations have to keep up with the pace of home users in terms of adopting new technology. And adoption is streamlined by the Redmond company offering the possibility of discounted upgrade prices for Windows 7. “Customers can purchase upgrade media and an upgrade license to move from Windows XP to Windows 7; however, they will need to do a clean installation of Windows 7,” a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed to Softpedia.

Of course the biggest issue with Windows XP is the impending mainstream support cut-off date. “Service Pack 3 was released last spring, and as a consequence, SP2 support will be retired on July 13, 2010. Windows XP overall leaves Mainstream Support and enters Extended Support in just a few months - on April 14, 2009. Windows XP with SP3 will be supported until April 8, 2014. So that gives XP environments some breathing room, but not necessarily as much as you might think (more on that in a minute),” Fiorina said.

Fact is that, home users that have ridden XP this far can continue to do so and squeeze everything that the operating system has to offer until Windows 7 hits the shelves. Unless in need of a critical system upgrade, it makes all the sense in the world to skip Windows Vista altogether, and move straight to Windows 7. By the time Windows 7 is out users will be able to buy what in 2007 were machines tailored to Vista much cheaper, but still perfectly capable of running Windows 7. It makes less sense to continue with XP beyond Windows 7. All good things must come to an end, and XP is one of them, even if two years after the GA of Vista the operating system still enjoys 60%+ usage share. Of course, users will have to go against the perfectly comfortable feeling that XP provides, and actually try something new.

Obviously, Microsoft would have users follow a different upgrading strategy: “We recommend that both consumers and enterprises start using Windows Vista now to take advantage of its existing benefits; Windows Vista will be smooth and straightforward upgrade path to Windows 7 when it is available, due to its high compatibility with hardware and software that works well with Windows Vista,” a Microsoft spokesperson stated.

For corporate consumers things are by no means as simple as for home users. Market analyst firm Forrester, indicated that even in the enterprise some 15% of IT decision makers are skipping Windows Vista altogether and moving to Windows 7. And in the context in which corporations have, at this point in time, not even considered planning, let alone actually started to plan for an upgrade to Vista, Windows 7 is the best answer. With migration plans and the testing process taking as much as a couple of years, corporate users that have already started planning for Vista, or that are already deploying the operating system, should by all means continue and not wait for Windows 7. Microsoft promises that the transition from Windows Vista to Windows 7 will be natural, and that preparing for Vista is actually preparing for Win 7.

Windows 2000

Toss it out! No excuses! According to Net Applications, there are still over 1% of users running Windows 2000, while in the enterprise environments the operating system still has a market share of 10%. For both home users and corporations this is the perfect time to upgrade, and Windows 7 is the obvious answer, but fact is that even Windows Vista will do. When I asked Microsoft whether it would allow Windows 2000 users to buy upgrade media of Windows 7, a company representative stated that the software giant had no details to share at this point in time.

“Windows 2000 has largely gone by the wayside on the client – thankfully so, as support for 2000 ends on July 13, 2010. Anyone who is convinced that we’ll extend that date is playing with fire. Yes, we did so with NT4, but that shouldn’t be considered a precedent setting event. Retire those machines this year so you don’t have a firedrill in 2010 – especially if your company is subject to SOX, PCI, etc.,” Fiorina advised.

Windows 7

There will always be users that will embrace the latest technology releases as soon as they are available. Home users will have the option to buy either Windows 7 Home Premium or Windows 7 Ultimate if they want all the features of the operating system. Businesses have the Windows 7 Professional edition, while corporations will yet again flirt with the Enterprise SKU. It's a valid possibility, that just as Vista Enterprise was launched two months earlier compared to the rest of the operating system's editions, Windows 7 Enterprise will also be made available ahead of the Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate SKUs of the platform. “Windows Vista Home Basic users will be able to upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium or Windows 7 Professional. Windows 7 Enterprise is available to customers who have already purchased or will purchase Software Assurance through one of our volume license offers,” a Microsoft spokesperson added.

Windows 7 is in fact, and will continue to be until February 10, 2009, available for download for free as a Beta release. Downloading, installing and testing Windows 7 Beta is an experience sufficient in itself to convince users either that an upgrade is necessary or that it is not. However, I fear that once they try Windows 7 Beta Build 7000 there will be no way to go back to XP or to Vista for the vast majority of them.

For enterprises, yet another impediment in adopting a new Windows operating system is the tradition to wait for the first Service Pack as a measure of the product's maturity, and only afterward deploy the operating system. Microsoft is signaling that this move will not be necessary with Windows 7. “While Windows 7 is a major release from our perspective, it does not involve any huge architectural changes, so I personally feel that the ‘waiting for SP1’ methodology is unnecessary. Given how aggressively that we’ve been working with the partner ecosystem, I would expect that they will be much more ready to support Windows 7 at the time of availability than any prior release of Windows, Fiorina.

Windows 7 Beta is available for download here.

Product keys to activate Windows 7 Beta are available here.

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