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What's New in Windows 7?

As with every new version of Windows since Windows 95, Microsoft has made a lot of broad statements about Windows 7: it’s easier to perform everyday tasks, it’s more compatible, it’s more secure and so forth.

Separating the Microsoft advertising from the reality of Windows 7 can be hard. That said, Windows 7’s changes are a surprisingly well planned and logical evolution of features that were tacked on to Windows XP as it aged, as well as a visual refresh that actually provides value rather than just eye candy. There are three major areas of change that are important for small businesses: the new user interface, application compatibility, and networking functionality.

New User Interface

Windows 7 looks radically different if you are migrating from Windows XP. Like Office 2007 before it, Windows 7 is designed to throw away many of the design flaws that had built up in Windows since the days of Windows 95. The Start Menu has been upgraded, and at the same time de-emphasised: many users will now spend all of their time using the new taskbar replacement called the Superbar, which behaves more like the Mac OS X Dock than a traditional Windows taskbar.
In addition, Windows Explorer has changed significantly – the functions that were available as a task list on the left hand side have been moved into an “Organise” menu, and Instant Search is available from every window in a manner similar to recent versions of Internet Explorer. A new area called Devices and Printers provides easy access to peripherals such as scanners, printers, cameras, removable hard drives, USB flash keys and other storage devices.
Rounding out the new features is Aero, a new graphical overlay that makes working with Windows feel more natural. First introduced in Windows Vista, Aero is essentially 3D video game technology brought into the mainstream. By using the same sorts of animation techniques found in video games, Microsoft has made manipulating applications (for example opening, minimising, maximising and closing windows) look more realistic than was possible in Windows XP. Aero is in Windows 7 has been refined so it is quite understated and doesn’t get in the way. While Aero may sound unimportant for real business scenarios, it adds a polished layer on top of Windows 7 that makes working with the computer a more pleasant experience than was possible in XP.

Application Compatibility

The core of Windows 7 is radically different to that present in Windows XP, which is essentially the same as Windows 2000. In the same way that Windows XP was an evolution of Windows 2000, Windows 7 is an evolution of Windows Vista.
For Vista, and by extension Windows 7, Microsoft has made major alterations to the underlying operating system to modernise Windows and make it more reliable and secure. In the early days of Windows Vista, this restructuring resulted in just about every XP-era application being unable to run properly on Vista. To address this issue, Microsoft created an application compatibility layer separate from the core operating system. Frequent application compatibility fixes were released via Windows Update. However, the core of Vista was so radically different to XP that many older business applications, particularly those without mass-market circulation, no longer worked.
For Windows 7, Microsoft has taken a dual approach. Firstly, the application compatibility layer has been enhanced, and many applications that failed to run on Windows Vista will now work as expected on Windows 7. Secondly, Microsoft has made a virtualised copy of Windows XP available to Windows 7 Professional and Enterprise users, called Windows XP Mode. Windows XP Mode allows businesses who are experiencing difficulties with critical XP-era software on Windows 7 to continue to use XP for these legacy applications while moving forward with Windows 7 for general use. However, XP Mode is not designed for general applications that can be upgraded to newer, more compatible versions; in addition, it requires more capable computers than those running Windows 7 alone.

Networking Functionality

Windows 7 comes with the same major rewrite of Windows networking that first appeared in Windows Vista. In terms of raw capabilities, the major change is the end of support for IPX-based Novell networks. This should not impact on many (if any) small businesses, unless for some reason they are still running an older version of Novell’s Netware. (However, if employees are surreptitiously playing older video games on their workstations they may be disappointed as many classic games were designed to use IPX for network play.)
The more relevant change, however, is the impact on roaming profiles, which allow employees to move between workstations without losing their settings. Windows 7 inherits the new profile structure that debuted with Windows Vista. This means that profiles generally cannot be shared between Windows 7 and Windows XP – if your business intends to run the two Windows versions simultaneously you will need to maintain two sets of user profiles. Naturally this is far from ideal, and therefore our advice would be to make a full jump to Windows 7 if at all possible, rather than mixing the two versions.
For businesses who are running SharePoint, or who are considering a SharePoint-based document management system, Windows 7 represents a great advance over previous Windows versions. In combination with SharePoint 3.0, Windows 7’s Instant Search can now integrate with SharePoint libraries. This means that when employees perform a search from the Windows 7 Start Menu, they are shown results not only from their personal document libraries, but from the business’ SharePoint portal as well (click here to read more about SharePoint).

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This page last updated on 28/12/09 @ 2:41PM.

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