Start Me Up..

[As ever, this can be read on the BBC News website, as part of their Windows 7 coverage]

In August 1995 I queued to buy the newly-released Microsoft Window 95 from the PC World store in Ropemaker Street, near Moorgate in Central London and hurried off to install it on my desktop computer.

It was hard to miss the launch. Microsoft had bought every advert in that day’s edition of The Times and even licensed the Rolling Stones song ‘Start Me Up’ to promote their brand-new operating system.

I knew what Windows 95 looked like and had seen the Start button and all the other innovations in the user interface, file system and control panel, because I worked in the tech industry and had access to the Windows 95 launch website, and also because I had been to a conference where Microsoft’s Jeremy Gittings showed it all off to a select few outside the developer community, but for most users it was all relatively unknown.

Sometime this week a package containing Windows 7 that I pre-ordered months ago from Amazon will arrive in the post, strike action permitting,  and I’ll get to play with the latest Microsoft technology. However I’ve been using the pre-release version for over three months, so I doubt I’ll be very surprised by it.

There is perhaps no clearer sign of how the technology world has changed in the years between Windows 95 and Windows 7.

It isn’t that Microsoft is no longer significant in the technology world, since despite the adulation of the Mac using community Windows continues to dominate all sectors of the marketplace and outsell the competition by a factor or eight or nine to one.

It isn’t that Microsoft has become an irrelevance in the new networked world, though some would like to think so when our attention is entirely focused on Google and its latest strategic move.

What has happened is that the internet and the revolution it has wrought have completely transformed the relationship between suppliers and customers and reset the expectations that any consumer of software has about access to early versions of key technologies.

Windows 7 has been available in some form or other for years. The key innovations that make it a worthy successor to XP and may succeeed in consigning Vista to the memory hole of computing’s Ministry of Truth have been public since their inception, the bug reports are available to search, and the slow move from early beta to release candidate have been exhaustively documented online in Microsoft’s own forums and elsewhere.

This is how it is done these days. It may be closed, proprietary code but the release process is as open as it can be, partly because it is what we demand in the network age and partly because every developer knows that it makes for better software.

The primary responsibility for that change clearly belongs with the Internet, the global network of networks based on adherence to a set of technical standards for computer-to-computer communication and a shared desire to build an open network for the world, but Microsoft deserves its share of credit. If it had not done so much to fulfil its corporate goal of putting a computer on every desk – and in every home and classroom – then the network’s global reach would be much less relevant.

In the fifteen years that have passed since my excitement at installing Windows 95 as a replacement for the venerable, clunky and woefully inadequate ‘Windows for Workgroups’ which ran on my computer at the time Microsoft has wrought more change in the world than even Alexander the Great could dream of, and we should allow the company due credit for this. Whatever our criticisms of its corporate ethics, security practices or licensing model, we cannot deny its impact and success.

But what of the new operating system itself

Microsoft should note that I skipped Vista entirely. I have never had a Vista license, run it on any computer that I own or relied on it for any task, however trivial. I stuck with Windows XP on my ageing desktop and only retired it earlier this year when I got Windows 7 RC to run reliably under VMWare on my Mac.

But I will install it use the new version, and I’m more tempted to buy a low-cost, high-spec Windows laptop for occasional use than I have been for years.

I also look forward to its successor, because while advocates of cloud computing, ultra-thin clients and distributed systems argue that Windows 7 marks the last major release of a Microsoft operating system, and perhaps of any operating system, I am not so convinced.

Some see a world in which Google’s Chrome OS or something similar provides a lightweight, network-oriented set of services and a translucent user interface, offering trouble-free access to a range of applications and tools in an always-on world, and though I used to share this vision I’ve started to feel differently.

For the last few weeks I’ve been living the life of a digital nomad as I’m between houses. I’ve relied on the kindness – and the network connectivity – of both strangers and friends, and although I’ve managed to get most things done the pain of the slow wi-fi on a recent train journey from London to Newcastle, the general unreliability of my 3G dongle when away from the centre of large towns, and the continuing inability of O2 to provide decent data coverage for iPhone users have cast me into the fourth circle of network hell on far too many occasions for me to feel comfortable about the cloud.

As I’ve come to rely more and more on the applications and data that reside on the hard drive of the laptop that I carry everywhere I can see why Microsoft’s decision to walk a careful line between a full operating system loaded with all the applications you can ever need and its Azure cloud platform makes sense.

Windows 7 is not going to be the end of the line for Microsoft operating systems. It just remains to be seen whether it can bring the company back after the ‘new Windows’ debacle that was VIsta.
Bill’s Links
Windows 95:
Windows 95 Remembered:
Windows 7 RC info:
Chrome OS:

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2 Responses to Start Me Up..

  1. Dominic Self says:

    Although Microsoft can obviously now acquiesce with the ‘Vista was a terrible mistake, but you can forget all about that now’ narrative, it’s still wrong.

    On new PCs, Vista was better than XP. Unambiguously better, and markedly so. And, in fact, its development process was a lot more ‘open’ than Windows 7 in terms of information being given out early and often – this was, of course, part of the problem when Microsoft over-promised early on and then could never deliver. But that doesn’t mean they actually ended up delivering something retrograde!

    Still, who cares now. Windows 7 it is…

  2. Robert Carnegie says:

    Windows for Workgroups had a nifty calendar and appointments tool. Not in Windows 95, but if you upgraded your own PC then you still had the calendar. New Windows versions sometimes drop features. Compressed hard disk was in 95, I think, and gone in XP, although you do get a Zip archive tool.

    Another recent Windows feature has been that upgrading or buying it off the shelf usually costs more than buying it with a new computer. The whole PC – at least without monitor – can be cheaper than upgrading the one you’ve got, and then you have two PCs (and one monitor: but you can probably use an LCD TV).

    One thing I still haven’t got around to trying on Vista, and I hope it’s still in Seven – although I don’t intend to upgrade for a while – is as standard voice recognition, and better and more useable than ever before – I’m told. I don’t think competitors have this at all and they should have made it a big selling point, except that even now it probably struggles to perform on any less than highest-performance computers.

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