Page last updated at 07:30 GMT, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 08:30 UK

Start me up, Windows

Bill Thompson looks forward to getting Windows 7 - after using it for months.

Microsoft Corporate Vice President Julie Larson-Green says Windows 7 has been planned better than Vista

In August 1995 I queued to buy the newly-released Microsoft Window 95 and hurried off to install it on my desktop computer.

It was hard to miss the launch. Microsoft had bought every advert in that day's edition of The Times and even licensed the Rolling Stones song 'Start Me Up' to promote their brand-new operating system.

I knew what Windows 95 looked like. I had seen the Start button and all the other innovations in the user interface, file system and control panel, because I worked in the tech industry and had access to the Windows 95 launch website.

I had also been to a conference where Microsoft's Jeremy Gittings showed it all off to a select few - but for most users it was all relatively unknown.

Sometime this week a package containing Windows 7 that I pre-ordered a month ago from Amazon will arrive in the post, strike action permitting, and I'll get to play with the latest Microsoft technology.

However I've been using the pre-release version for over three months, so I doubt I'll be very surprised by it.

open window
Will Windows 7 open up a whole new world?

The technology revolution

There is perhaps no clearer sign of how the technology world has changed in the years between Windows 95 and Windows 7.

It isn't that Microsoft is no longer significant in the technology world. Despite the adulation of the Mac using community Windows continues to dominate all sectors of the marketplace and outsell the competition by a factor or eight or nine to one.

It isn't that Microsoft has become an irrelevance in the new networked world, though some would like to think so when our attention is entirely focused on Google and its latest strategic move.

What has happened is that the internet and the revolution it has wrought have completely transformed the relationship between suppliers and customers.

It has reset the expectations that any consumer of software has about access to early versions of key technologies.

Windows 7 has been available in some form or other for years. The key innovations that make it a worthy successor to XP and may succeed in consigning Vista to the memory hole of computing's Ministry of Truth have been public since their inception.

The bug reports are available to search, and the slow move from early beta to release candidate have been exhaustively documented online in Microsoft's own forums and elsewhere.

Bill Thompson
Windows 7 is not going to be the end of the line for Microsoft operating systems.
Bill Thompson

This is how it is done these days. It may be closed, proprietary code but the release process is as open as it can be. It is what we demand in the network age and every developer knows that it makes for better software.

The primary responsibility for that change clearly belongs with the internet, the global network of networks based on adherence to a set of technical standards for computer-to-computer communication and a shared desire to build an open network for the world.

Microsoft too deserves its share of credit.

If it had not done so much to fulfil its corporate goal of putting a computer on every desk - and in every home and classroom - then the network's global reach would be much less relevant.

In the 15 years that have passed since my excitement at installing Windows 95 as a replacement for the venerable, clunky and woefully inadequate 'Windows for Workgroups', Microsoft has wrought more change in the world than even Alexander the Great could dream of.

Whatever our criticisms of its corporate ethics, security practices or licensing model, we cannot deny its impact and success.

Digital nomad

Windows 7 screenshot
Will Windows 7 allow users to forget Vista?
But what of the new operating system itself?

Microsoft should note that I skipped Vista entirely. I have never had a Vista license, run it on any computer that I own or relied on it for any task, however trivial.

I stuck with Windows XP on my ageing desktop and only retired it earlier this year when I got Windows 7 RC to run reliably under VMWare on my Mac.

But I will install it and use the new version, and I'm more tempted to buy a low-cost, high-spec Windows laptop for occasional use than I have been for years.

I also look forward to its successor, because while advocates of cloud computing, ultra-thin clients and distributed systems argue that Windows 7 marks the last major release of a Microsoft operating system, and perhaps of any operating system, I am not so convinced.

Some see a world in which Google's Chrome OS or something similar provides a lightweight, network-oriented set of services and a translucent user interface, offering trouble-free access to a range of applications and tools in an always-on world.

Although I used to share this vision, I've started to feel differently.

For the last few weeks I've been living the life of a digital nomad as I'm between houses. I've relied on the kindness - and the network connectivity - of strangers and friends.

Although I've managed to get most things done, the pain of the slow wi-fi on a recent train journey from London to Newcastle, the general unreliability of my 3G dongle when away from the centre of large towns, and the continuing inability of O2 to provide decent data coverage for iPhone users have cast me into the fourth circle of network hell on far too many occasions for me to feel comfortable about the cloud.

I've come to rely more and more on the applications and data that reside on the hard drive of the laptop that I carry everywhere. So I can see why Microsoft's decision to walk a careful line between a full operating system loaded with all the applications you can ever need and its Azure cloud platform makes sense.

Windows 7 is not going to be the end of the line for Microsoft operating systems. It just remains to be seen whether it can bring the company back after the 'new Windows' debacle that was Vista.


Bill Thompson is a journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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