I am writing this on Windows 7, the successor to Vista that was previewed at Microsoft’s Professional Developer’s Conference in Los Angeles earlier this week. Microsoft is keen to avoid a repetition of Vista’s shambolic launch. Mike Nash, corporate vice-president, spoke at the press briefing about learning from the Vista experience, and the man in charge of Windows engineering, Steven Sinofsky, emphasized the rigor and discipline of the Windows 7 development process.
It appears to be working. Even in the preview handed out to the press, Windows 7 feels more polished and less annoying than its predecessor. The changes are not dramatic, but that is a good thing. Microsoft has left the core architecture untouched, so that software and devices that worked on Vista should still work.
Microsoft is also making Windows “quieter”; in other words, reducing the number of prompts that interrupt your work. For example, too many applications now install themselves in the Windows system tray and pop up frequent notifications. Windows 7 lets you hide them or turn off their messages, returning control to the user. You can also fine-tune User Account Control, the security feature that in Vista flashes the screen and shows a dialog whenever you change a system setting.
Windows 7 does have some user interface changes, the most obvious being a revised taskbar, which shows an icon for every running application. The Windows 7 taskbar has larger icons, full-screen application previews when you hover the mouse, and “jump lists”: pop-up menus that control key features, such as starting or stopping a song in Windows Media Player, or visiting a favorite site in Internet Explorer. Application windows can be made transparent to see files on the desktop, and when you drag a window with the mouse, it snaps to screen borders: a small touch but one that feels natural.
Windows Explorer, the main tool for file management, has a new feature called libraries, which pulls together content from multiple locations and lets you treat them as one. For example, if you have some photos on an internal hard drive and others on an external drive, you can include both locations in one library and search it like a single folder. Applets like WordPad and Paint have been refreshed, and now sport fat ribbon toolbars like those introduced in Office 2007.
However, it will not be the new features that make or break Windows 7, but rather its quality, compatibility and performance. Windows 7 is less ambitious than Vista, its development is less rushed, and provided Microsoft can dissuade its partners from overlaying it with third-party add-ons of lesser quality, this release promises to be one users will actually enjoy.