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By | Tim Anderson 22nd October 2009 06:02

Windows 95 to Windows 7: How Microsoft lost its vision

Behind the taskbar

Comment Much better than Vista, and the best Windows yet. That seems to be the consensus view on Windows 7, and after two and a half months with the final build, I more or less agree - despite the niggling voice that says behind the new taskbar it is not really so different from Windows Vista.

Nevertheless, Windows 7 on its launch today is a better experience than Windows Vista was when released in early 2007, thanks to a UI polish, faster hardware, better drivers, and new features that users actually enjoy - Taskbar, Libraries, Aero Peek - rather than features that were detrimental to usability and compatibility even if there were good reasons for them. Yes, User Account Control, I'm thinking of you.

It is a good effort from the Windows 7 team, though its task was easier than that facing the Windows Vista crew. Windows 7 is a refinement of Windows Vista, whereas Vista was meant to be revolutionary.

Windows 7

Essentials of the Windows 95 user interface remain in Windows 7

The interesting questions about Windows Vista concern not what was delivered, but what was omitted. I attended Microsoft's 2003 Professional Developers Conference (PDC), where we heard about the now-notorious "three pillars of Longhorn": Avalon, later called Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF); Indigo, later called Windows Communication Foundation; and WinFS, still called WinFS, still not shipped.

WinFS was the relational file system that was itself a delayed variation of the Object File System promised for the Cairo project originally talked about in 1991. Making it work sensibly, though, proved too difficult. With two of three pillars removed, no wonder Windows Vista tottered.

Ah, but surely Avalon was left in? It is true that WPF did ship with Windows Vista, but Avalon as originally conceived did not survive the July 2005 reset, when work on Windows Vista was scrapped and restarted based on the Windows Server 2003 code base. In 2003, Microsoft Group vice president Jim Allchin described Avalon as "the graphics subsystem in Windows Longhorn and a foundation for the Windows Longhorn shell".

That may have been true of the glacial but fascinating technical preview given out at that PDC, but it was not true of what eventually became Vista, carefully analyzed by Richard Grimes and found to include minimal .NET code. There will be a little more .NET in Windows 7, with things like the PowerShell scripting environment, but it remains predominantly native code.

As presented at PDC 2003, Longhorn was visionary. Code access security in .NET was going to solve Windows security problems. XAML hosted in the browser would unite the Internet and the desktop. WinFS was going to liberate data from application silos.

What we got was Windows Vista, and now there's Windows 7. Neither is remotely visionary, even though the latter is a very competent desktop operating system.

From 3.1 to 95

In preparation for this piece, I looked back at both Windows 3.1 (1992) and Windows 95 (1995). I was struck by how much Microsoft achieved in the few years separating the two. Windows 95 fell over a lot, and it was released with a surprising disregard for the internet, installing the proprietary Microsoft Network by default but no web browser unless you added the Plus! supplementary pack. Nevertheless, it got a lot of things right. 32-bit applications, preemptive multi-tasking, long file names, the taskbar, and Start menu, all combined with good backward compatibility for applications.

Windows 3.1

Windows 3.1 paved the way for considerable improvements in Windows 95

Since Windows 95, Microsoft's progress with Windows has been slower. The essentials of the Windows 95 user interface remain in Windows 7, fourteen years later. What Windows 95 does, Windows 7 does better and with greater reliability, but there is no revolution. The more interesting aspects of Windows 7, things like multitouch support and the sensor and location API, are near-invisible for most users, awaiting the moment when more hardware and applications support them.

A problem for Microsoft is that your next multitouch, location aware device is most likely a smartphone running something other than Windows, bearing in mind the parlous state of Windows Mobile.

Windows 7 is easy to recommend, at least versus Windows Vista or Windows XP, but despite its high quality there is a sense that the world is moving on, to mobile in one direction, and to the cloud in the other.

Windows 95

Microsoft's progress has slowed since Windows 95

Next month Microsoft will hold another PDC. Topics on the agenda include Windows Azure cloud services and Silverlight, the cross-platform, browser-hosted implementation of WPF that comes close to delivering on the promise of Avalon.

While both are promising technologies, they are not bold innovations. Silverlight has close competition from Adobe Systems' Flash, while Azure is one of several cloud platforms and looks unlikely to dominate.

Since PDC 2003 and the failure of its core propositions, Microsoft has become less adventurous, and the sensible utility of Windows 7 is the result. ®

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