Microsoft (MSFT) has never admitted that its much reviled Windows Vista operating system is a failure. But the design of Windows 7, which is now out in a trial version and scheduled for release later this year, speaks louder than words. Microsoft could have provided the usual plethora of new features, but instead it seems to have focused on fixing Vista's many annoyances. Based on a limited test of the "beta" version, I think Windows 7 may be something we can look forward to.
Under the new design, the standard desktop has changed in subtle but significant ways. In a shameless borrowing from Apple's (AAPL) OS X, a greatly simplified taskbar at the bottom of the Windows screen now shows a single icon for every program you have open. Holding the cursor over an icon reveals details, such as the contents of multiple browser windows. One simple option lets you "pin" an icon to the taskbar so that it is always available to be launched. Another choice gives you control over the "system tray" area at the right end of the task bar, limiting it to icons that give you useful information on things like the status of your network connection—rather than seemingly random things a software company chooses to put there.
Microsoft has also simplified home networking in Windows 7. A new concept called the Homegroup makes it much easier to share files, including music and video, among all the computers in your household. It's also much easier to bring a laptop home from work and have it change personality, as it were, so you can use your home networking settings and home printers. But the one-time setup of a printer attached directly to the network is still far too difficult, especially compared with the ease of doing the same chore on a Mac.
Compatibility and performance are two Vista sore points that Microsoft has addressed in Windows 7. When Vista was first released, lots of programs and accessories such as printers did not work properly until third-party vendors caught up with software fixes. To keep that from happening with Windows 7, Microsoft avoided any major changes in the operating system's core code. Developers were ordered to enforce a rule that "if it works in Vista it will work in 7," and to a large extent this appears to have succeeded. The only applications I found that didn't work were Norton Internet Security—new operating systems always break security programs—and the Skype (EBAY) Internet phone service. A bonus resulting from this compatibility push: It looks like it will be fairly easy to upgrade to Windows 7 from Vista, something that has not been true for a new Microsoft operating system for many years. (Upgrades from XP will not be supported.)
Performance of prerelease software is harder to test than compatibility. But Windows 7 seems to be somewhat less demanding of hardware than Vista. I was especially impressed by how snappily it ran on a Lenovo IdeaPad S10 netbook, a class of machine that struggles with Vista.
Windows 7 also tames some of Vista's more aggravating behavior. In Vista, for example, there's a security feature so authoritarian that simple acts like trying to read an error message may cause a window to pop up demanding permission. Many users resort to switching the feature off, leaving their systems vulnerable to malicious software. The new version allows finer control so that you only get approval requests for important and potentially dangerous changes. This alone is apt to be worth the cost—although as of this moment, Microsoft hasn't set the price.
Computer manufacturers expect to be loading Windows 7 on their new fall models. It should be available in stores for upgrades at about the same time. If you are one of the many who have been frustrated by Vista, Windows 7 is likely to provide some badly needed relief.