by Shane O'Neill

Windows 7: Is Microsoft Too Focused on Consumers?

Jan 29, 20094 mins
Data Center

As someone who wants Microsoft to be cooler, I’m all for them making an aggressive pitch to consumers. I say make Windows 7 a simplified, colorful, fun experience for everyday users. Emphasize how it can store and share music and photos. Keep those potential Mac users from switching. Heck, open up retail stores while you’re at it.

But of course Microsoft has to walk the line here. By kowtowing to consumers, it runs the risk of neglecting its core customer, the business user. In a recent interview on sister site Network World, Windows blogger and editor of Supersite for Windows Paul Thurrott contends that Microsoft is biting the hand that feeds it by leaning heavily on consumer features with Windows 7. Enterprise needs have been reduced to an afterthought, he says.

This is the opposite of Microsoft’s usual route of focusing on businesses more than consumers. I suppose when you’re a company that has chosen to be all things to all people, life is a constant balancing act. And so it goes with Windows 7, quite possibly Microsoft’s most challenging balancing act ever.

The mantra Microsoft is repeating to the press about Windows 7 is: “We’ve listened to our customers”, implying I guess that it didn’t listen to them for Vista. Internet message boards are filled with people who would agree with that.

I recently installed the Windows 7 beta on my personal laptop running Vista Home Premium and you can see right away the consumer friendliness of the OS. And that’s a good thing. It’s really growing on me: The clean and logical UI of Windows 7 is so much better than XP that it’s funny. The Windows 7 taskbar, which gives you major control over your myriad open applications with mouse-over lists that you can click on, puts the random dumping ground that is XP’s taskbar to shame.

The interface differences with Vista are more subtle, but I’ll save my thoughts on the Windows 7 beta for another post. What’s clear is that Windows 7 is just freakin’ easier: easier to switch between browsers, to find and share files, to connect to a wireless network, to back up data to an external hard drive, to create a home network, to check security settings. From what I’ve seen of the beta so far, if you get lost using Windows 7 then maybe you shouldn’t be using a computer.

But does an improved user interface help IT pros and business users? Sure it helps, but it doesn’t solve their big problems. In his interview, Thurrott accuses Microsoft of not having “much of an enterprise story” with Windows 7. He concedes that Windows 7 has embedded some interesting new enterprise features such as DirectAccess, which allows mobile users to connect to networks without a VPN, and BranchCache, which caches data on a branch office server to limit the data traveling over the WAN. But both of those features are locked to Windows Server 2008 R2 (still in beta) and require upgrades to both Windows 7 and WS2008 R2 in order to work.

“I feel disappointed because it seems some Windows 7 enterprise features are arbitrarily locked to WS2008 R2,” Thurrott says. “That’s a problem when you are asking corporations to spend a significant sum of money or a lot of effort to upgrade and they have to upgrade their server and client operating systems. It’s a tough year for that.”

Though this is less a direct criticism of Windows 7, Thurrott believes that some of the OS’s enterprise features should be available now in Vista. “I think it would be smart if Microsoft offered Direct Access and BitLocker on Vista, which would make it more inviting for enterprises to use them.”

I would argue that Windows 7’s weak enterprise story has more to do with poor marketing than lackluster features. New features such as BitLocker (hard-drive encryption) and Windows Live Essentials (Access to download cloud applications instead of loading up the OS) are compelling but fairly unknown. I agree with Thurrott that Microsoft should let BitLocker and DirectAccess trickle out early on Vista to generate interest.

That would be good enterprise marketing. But for the time being, Microsoft is flip-flopping its old marketing ways: the consumer is the new enterprise, and the balancing act continues.