David Tebbutt, SmallBizPod blog

Last Friday Microsoft allowed all and sundry access to the beta version of its next operating system, Windows 7. I’m not suggesting you rush online to download it although you might get a pleasant surprise. Everyone I’ve spoken to, including those who have been using the private beta version which preceded it, has good things to say.

What a contrast to Vista, which attracted a fair amount of opprobrium in both its beta and release versions.

I figured that Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, would be the best person from whom to get a top level view. He dedicated 90 seconds to Windows 7 at last week’s CES show in Las Vegas. If you want to hear his words, fire up this video and advance to 21m 57s (just in time to hear him tell how “excited” he is. Is this the most overused, and insincere, word in US presentations, I wonder?)

Anyway, to save you the bother, here are the key attributes that he felt worth mentioning: improved simplicity, reliability and speed; do everyday tasks faster and easier; boot more quickly; longer battery life; fewer alerts; better entertainment and ability to work with other entertainment devices; and, user interface improvements like touch.

You can watch an abbreviated Ballmer and a demo by Charlotte Jones here. And you can watch a webcast demo (on a netbook) by a pre-beta user (last November) here. The first is slick, the second is real. Both will give you a sense of what makes Windows 7 different to what’s gone before.

Anything which helps you start work sooner after switch on and accelerates your work gets my vote. With lower power consumption and less demand on resources, it seems to reverse the trend towards ever greater software bloat and ever higher spec’ machines. Seems to me that Windows 7 has a slight tinge of green about it. Probably as a by-product of recognising that we like to work on ever smaller devices.

I can’t help noticing that the Windows mobile operating system (the one used in some smartphones) is creeping up towards the number 7 as well. I think it’s at 6.1 at the moment. I’m guessing that, with Ballmer’s talk (before the Windows 7 bit) of convergence between devices (phones, PCs, TVs and the cloud), the two operating systems will converge on the same number and feel similar. It would make sense. And going back to simple numbering would move the company away from Vista, which was a bit of a psychological dead end. Even though it now works pretty well.

As I said at the beginning, you’d probably prefer to wait for an official release which is, in theory, due next year. Having said that, I’m hearing very good things about the beta. If you’re on XP and you’re happy, stay there. If you really need Vista, then get it because you’ll find that migrating to Windows 7 later is very straightforward. Moving from XP to either Vista or Windows 7 is very similar, the Microsoft installer will provide semi-automated help. The alternative is to do a clean install, but this means that you need to take responsibility for backing up all your existing data and applications, including some stuff in hidden directories. Unless you have a techie to hand, you really don’t want to do this.

This is the first time I can remember looking forward to a new Windows release instead of dreading it. And anyone who knows me will realise that this is close to a miracle.

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