When the new desktop OS goes gold later this year, it will offer some very real enterprise benefits over Vista. For the many businesses yet to move from XP to Vista, it clearly makes sense to hold off for a year or so and then move straight to Windows 7. Even Microsoft's Steve Ballmer apparently agrees. "If people want to wait, they certainly can," he said at a Gartner Symposium last month.
The release of Vista was delayed and delayed before it was finally released in January 2007. Surely the same thing could happen with Windows 7? Anything is possible when you are talking about developing software, but the signs are that Microsoft has learned from its mistakes with Vista. The company seems to have developed Windows 7 in a far more modular fashion, so features that are complete can be added to the build, and ones that are not ready can be left out.
Of course any code changes or additions can have unexpected results, but the build released at PDC M3 or Milestone 3 was extremely stable even if not feature complete, and the beta version released in early January added functionality to this without apparently sacrificing anything in the way of stability. The beta (build 7000) expires on August 1st, so it's quite possible that Microsoft plans to release 7 soon after that.
But what's the big attraction of Windows 7? Overall it has designed to be smaller and lighter than Vista, so it can run on lower-spec machines than would be needed to run Vista. It will even run on netbooks, which should appeal to companies hoping to deploy cheap devices to employees and offer applications from the cloud.
But there are also a number of new features which look very interesting indeed. Here are the top 5:
Microsoft is touting this as a way of connecting employees to the corporate network securely without the need to use a conventional VPN. VPNs are unpopular with end users, as they are often unreliable. Using DirectAccess network file shares, intranet web sites, and line-of-business applications should be available at any time as long as the client machine has an Internet connection. Traffic can be split so data destined for the Internet is routed normally while communication with corporate resources is sent using DirectAccess.
DirectAccess works the other way too: administrators can access a Windows 7 machine to update Group Policy settings and distribute software updates any time it is connected to the Internet, even if the user is not logged on to the corporate network. Microsoft believes this will make it much easier to manage remote devices, which are rarely connected to the corporate network.
DirectAccess will be possible only when Windows 7 is used together with a Windows Server 2008 R2 DirectAccess server.
In Windows Server 2008 Microsoft added the Read-Only Domain Controller (RODC) to speed up the process of authenticating and logging on to the network from branch offices. BranchCache is intended to make life even easier for workers in branch offices by caching a copy of data accessed from an intranet web site or a file server at the head office so others in the branch can access it very quickly. The caching may be carried out by a Windows Server 2008 R2 machine (Hosted Cache mode), but more interestingly, it can also be carried out in Distributed Cache mode by other Windows 7 clients, without a server. When a Windows 7 client requests data that is cached on another device in the same branch office, BranchCache checks that it is the most recent version of the file and that the person requesting it has the appropriate permissions. It then delivers it over the LAN from one client machine to the other.
This is designed to make it easier than in the past for administrators to specify which versions of which applications users are allowed to run on their Windows 7 systems. Unauthorized applications can cause all kinds of headaches for administrators, including mention malware infections and network slowdowns, and AppLocker should make combating them more straightforward.
This encryption application has steadily been improved since it was first introduced on Vista. In Windows 7 it is even easier to encrypt a full hard drive by just right clicking on it.
But the biggest innovation in BitLocker is BitLocker To Go, which encrypts removable USB drives and memory sticks. This makes a great deal of sense since memory sticks are easily lost, and Windows 7 can be configured to ensure that all memory sticks are encrypted before they can be written to.
Microsoft has made a number of enhancements to search in Windows 7. One example is search federation, the ability to search remote document repositories as well as the local machine. Users can choose where to search, or IT administrators can pre-set locations to search using Group Policy.
Administrators can also put links on the Start menu or in Windows Explorer pointing to corporate information sources that users must access easily, to help simplify accessing data from the correct sources.
Any list of top new features is necessarily arbitrary, and Windows 7 has plenty more features, including improvements to virtualization, the introduction of PowerShell 2.0 to improve manageability, and countless more. It's also worth pointing out that although many people are actually running Windows 7, the current version is a beta. A much-hyped beta, but a beta nonetheless. A lot could change between now and the one or more Release Candidates coming down the pike and the finished product. Some of these features also depend on Server 2008 R2, which adds another unknown to the mix
But despite all this, if Vista was looking unattractive before, it sure looks a whole lot less attractive a proposition now. Most organizations still using XP can see the writing on the wall for Vista and will probably move straight to Windows 7 some time after 2009.