by Shane O'Neill

Microsoft Takes Heat for Double Talk on Windows 7

Oct 20, 20084 mins
Small and Medium BusinessWindows

Microsoft walks a fine line trying to keep Windows 7 technically similar to Vista, while marketing it as "7" to create some distance from Vista's lingering bad vibe. The strategy has already caused some confusion.

Microsoft’s announcement last week that Windows 7 would be the official name for the next big OS after Vista was met with a curious combination of confusion and yawns.

Some of the confusion can be blamed on Windows VP Mike Nash’s disjointed explanation for how Microsoft mathematically arrived at 7. The yawns came from the announcement being so casual (especially by Microsoft standards) and from the name being just a number.

But the yawns soon died down, and the simplicity of the name has created some complicated image problems for Microsoft. There have been accusations in the blogosphere that naming the operating system 7 gives the appearance of an upgrade, even though 7 code shares the same version number as Vista (6), which allows Microsoft to quietly reassure developers nervous about Vista-like application and device-driver compatibility headaches.

Microsoft has had some trouble explaining these alleged contradictions; with, for example, Nash calling Windows 7 both a “significant” and “evolutionary” advancement. Then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer declared at Gartner’s annual Symposium ITxpo in Orlando, Fla., that, “Windows 7 is Windows Vista with cleanup in user interface [and] improvements in performance.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been pushing hard for Vista upgrades, even as Ballmer recommends skipping it.

Industry watchers say Microsoft is walking a difficult tightrope between keeping 7 technically close to Vista while marketing it as “7” to create distance from the sour taste Vista has left in the mouths of consumers and enterprises.

Though Microsoft has been forthright about Windows 7 being built on Vista code, Gartner analyst Michael Silver says the company will still use 7 to take peoples’ minds off the negative perceptions about Windows Vista.

“Vista, which is a good product, has been widely criticized by the media and shunned by many enterprises,” Silver says. “Even consumers who have never seen it often have a bad impression of Vista. So from a marketing point of view, Microsoft needs to make this look like something different. To that extent, the product name matters.”

Roger Kay, founder and president of research firm Endpoint Technologies, agrees that Windows 7 may be an opportunity for Microsoft to try to discreetly sweep the bad vibes of Vista under the rug.

“7 is not the hoped for panacea and the changes will be surface level, but Vista has gotten better in the last two years,” Kay says. “Microsoft needs to keep it going with 7 by continuing to improve User Account Control and security and simplify the programming code.”

For XP users frustrated by Vista, Windows 7 may appear like a fresh new start, even if underneath it is just an enhanced version of Vista, Kay says.

“Vista was such a giant leap from XP and for many it was disappointing and adoption has been slow,” Kay says. “The leap from XP to 7 will be harder in some respects, so it is key for Microsoft to preserve what was good in Vista and fix what didn’t work.”

But back to that name, 7. What, if anything, is it trying to reveal, and what is it trying to hide? Kay contends that consumers really don’t care about the name, but enterprise tech buyers may be swayed by the perception of the simple “7” name as a retreat from the pains and complexities of Vista.

Gartner’s Silver says that at this point the “Windows 7” name misrepresents what is, in reality, a minor release. “It will be more apparent when we get to see some details at PDC, but since it’s built on Vista, it probably really is more of a 6.x. The ‘7’ is a bit overstated,” he says.

Kay agrees that the Windows 7 name is mostly about marketing, but gives Microsoft points for humility. “Windows 7 is a workmanlike title. It’s Microsoft being humble and not boastful.”