With Windows 8's public release tomorrow, Microsoft is poised to pull a belly flop of unprecedented proportions. After seeing the muddled mess that is Windows 8, an ever-increasing segment of the billion-plus Windows users worldwide will ask themselves, "What's next?" Most businesses have already decided they'll stick with Windows 7 - once they complete the upgrades typically started just this year.
In Redmond, Microsoft is ignoring the public reaction to Windows 8, whose year-long public beta effort has shown us what we don't want. Instead, efforts are under way to bring us a Windows 9 festooned with more and prettier tiles, supersized Metro apps, deeper integration with social networks, the latest iPad app wannabes, support for traditional tablet and smartphone features, and four- and five-finger touch-and-swipe bells and whistles galore.
Microsoft needs to get real and bring us a better Windows 7 ASAP, even as it works on the more-Metro Windows 9 that's a good two or three years away. Call it Windows 7.8. The truth is that the new Windows 8 Desktop has some very cool features for those living in the "legacy" touch-insensitive, keyboard-and-mouse environment - there's only a billion of us. Maybe Microsoft can make money by selling us an upgrade to what we already have: a Windows 7.8 that brings the key new Windows 8 Desktop features home to Windows 7.
Microsoft is doing the same thing with Windows Phone. When Windows Phone 8 is formally unveiled next week and the corresponding smartphones ship soon after, thousands of current Windows Phone 7.x users will be running obsolete hardware that can't be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. Microsoft is taking many of the key improvements in Windows Phone 8 and putting them in the Windows 7.8 upgrade for "legacy" Windows Phone users. Although Windows 8, unlike Windows Phone 8, will work on on "legacy" hardware, it's still a good model - especially because Windows 8 runs so awkwardly on "legacy" hardware.
The effort involved in porting the improvements in Windows 8's Desktop to a Windows 7.8 shouldn't be all that great: The Windows 8 Desktop itself has gone through minuscule changes, and grafting Win8 apps onto Win7 ought to be little more than a job for a room full of interns over spring break. OK, it'll take slightly more effort, but it certainly wouldn't be as difficult as creating the features all over again or even building a Metro equivalent to GarageBand or iPhoto.
Windows 7.8 seems like low-hanging fruit with the potential for a significant sales bump for Microsoft, which sorely needs to get people to start buying Windows again.
Here are the features that Windows 7.8 should have:
A new incarnation of Windows Home Server's old (and discontinued) Drive Extender technology, Storage Spaces maintains up-to-the-second mirrored copies of all your data, as long as you have two or more hard disks. If one of the disks should die, the data's still available, with nary a hiccup. Remove the dead disk, stick in a new disk that's at least as big as the one that died, wait an hour or so, and the mirrored backup continues - and you don't have to touch a thing.
All the disks, internal or external, use one single drive letter (in Microsoft parlance, they're "virtualised"). If you run out of space, feed Storage Spaces a new disk, and it gets absorbed into the hard-disk Borg, using the same drive letter as all the others. If you have a handful of old 250GB disks hanging around that you really don't want to throw away, you can stick them in a storage pool and treat them as one big D: drive. If you still run out of space, add a new 2TB disk, and they all play happily together.
Data gets juggled and shuffled behind the scenes, with absolutely no need to copy, move, or otherwise mangle your data. No, it isn't RAID. No fancy hardware involved: Regular, old everyday hard disks, both internal and external, all work together.
It's the way hard disk storage should've been implemented decades ago. It works brilliantly. And Windows 7 needs the feature badly.
Windows 8's Storage Spaces automagically combines multiple disks into one.
Windows to Go
As you probably know, Windows to Go lets you put Windows on a stick. Take the USB stick with you, put it in any Windows PC running any modern version of Windows, then boot from USB -- congrats, you can run a completely isolated copy of Windows 8. Nothing on the host computer goes onto the USB-spawned copy of Win8. Nothing from the USB version of Win8 leaks onto the host computer. You can boot a Windows to Go USB drive on the dirtiest, most infected, and irretrievably bug-laden PC in the world, and the environment you work in remains pristine -- unless you gum it up, of course.
The current version of Windows to Go ships only with the Enterprise version of Windows 8, and it only creates USB-based portable Windows 8 machines. In theory, that's so businesses can manage the USB-based Windows 8 environment for employees who may be working at home or on the road. The Windows to Go image is licensed to the Enterprise account, not the individual. In practice, Windows to Go could be a boon to every Windows user, corporate or otherwise.
Right now, Windows to Go is a "Microsoft version 1.0" product in the pejorative sense of the term. It doesn't play well with networks, and it positively annihilates homegroups. It's slow as molasses on anything but USB 3.0 systems. It requires a 32GB USB drive, as a minimum, and that leaves little room for storage (which admittedly is supposed to go into Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage service anyway).
But if Microsoft could build a Windows 7.8 version of Windows to Go that creates Win7.8 machines on USB drives and offer Windows to Go on every version of Win7.8 from Home Premium up, I'd be first in line to grab it.
Integrated Hyper-V with licenses for WinXP and Win7.8
Even if the only use for Win7.8 Hyper-V were to get rid of that blasted Windows XP Mode in Windows 7 Pro, it would pay for itself a thousand times over.
The Windows 8 Hyper-V client (which only works on 64-bit versions of Win8 Pro and Enterprise) finally makes it possible to run virtual PCs inside Windows, without resorting to third-party applications.
Why do ordinary Windows 7 users need Hyper-V? For XP Mode, of course, but also for cordoning off company applications on a personally owned PC or trying new things that may cause Windows to go kaboom. If a user's experimentation goes awry on a virtual machine, just shut it down and start all over again.
In Windows 7.8, Hyper-V would certainly be a boon for Pro and Enterprise users, and it might even be useful for Home Premium. In any case, including a license for Windows XP and a license for Windows 7.8 would go a long way toward helping perplexed XP Mode users and inquisitive enthusiasts keep their PCs working for the long haul.
Windows 7 already has a Shadow Copy capability, which keeps snapshots of files, maintaining multiple copies of a single file as it changes over time. The main problem? Nobody knows it exists.
Windows 8 brings three big contributions to file versioning.
Although it's possible to make Win7 shadow copies work more or less like Win8's File History -- the underlying technology hasn't changed -- I believe most Windows 7 users (and admins) would pay to port the Win8 defaults and interface to Windows 7.8.
Windows 8's File History makes backup and recovery of files and file versions really easy.
The Win8 Restore capability, which returns Windows to a factory-fresh condition, is overkill for Windows 7.8. But some variant on Refresh could ease a lot of anguish -- and reduce Microsoft support demands.
Windows 7.8 doesn't need the elaborate problem-detection logic built into Windows 8 that triggers automatic prompts to Refresh. But it does need something a lot simpler than the current Byzantine Recovery Environment and blind rollbacks to restore points.
Refresh can't be blindly ported to Windows 7.8 because it relies on the Windows Store to bring in clean versions of downloaded apps. I bet with a little bit of thought, Microsoft could come up with a way to return Windows to its original settings, leaving installed programs and data intact. That wouldn't solve all the problems, but it could put a simpler face on cleaning out Windows rot.
Little things: Copy status, Task Manager, and USB 3.0 support
Windows 8 has many little improvements that should've happened around the time we all switched to Windows 3.1. The copy status dialog box, which can now show multiple simultaneous copies (ooh! aah!) and their progress, certainly falls into that category. The Win8 Task Manager, which incorporates several Win7 reports and a much better UI, also belongs in Windows 7.8.
Support for new hardware, including USB 3.0, ought to be brought from Win8 to Win7.8 as well.
The rest of the story
Of course, Microsoft Security Essentials should come along with the Windows 7.8 package without requiring a separate installation, as should Internet Explorer 10.
Secure boot may be a must-have Windows 7.8 capability for some corporate admins, but a very large percentage of the Windows machines out there don't support the enabling UEFI technology. They can't be coerced to join the Secure Boot army.
Microsoft should leave the Win7 interface just the way it is. Spare me the ribbon on Windows (er, File) Explorer, don't touch ClearType, and let me choose whether I want Aero Glass or not, thank you very much. I would love to get back the "up one folder" button in Windows Explorer, but if I have to put up with the ribbon to get it, no thank you.
I also couldn't care less about easy access to the Windows Store, and I would scream bloody murder if some of the current Win7 programs, such as Windows Live Essentials, started begging me to buy stuff - music, movies - from Mother Microsoft.
The new power hibernating options in Win8 are cool, but I wouldn't pay extra for them, and I doubt most admins would either. Still, if it's no big deal, why not put them in Win7.8?
It wouldn't bother me if Windows 7.8 included a pre-installed version of SkyDrive or Skype. Microsoft might even add support for its Microsoft account login, which lets you sync settings and services across PCs using the same account - just as it does with Windows 8.
With Windows 7.8, Microsoft could not only bask in the adulations of a billion customers, it could land some lucre in the coffers - with a minimum of effort. I doubt that offering Win7.8 would cannibalise any Windows 8 sales; in fact, it'd probably lend new oomph to the moribund PC market. Microsoft might also keep a few customers happily tethered to Win7, rather than temped to try OS X, while we wait to see what's in store with Windows 9.
Sounds like a win-win-win to me.