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Thursday, January 22, 2009, 08:05 am PT (11:05 am ET)

Windows 7 vs. Snow Leopard: Microsoft's comeback plan


Live Leverage

Reminiscent of iLife, Microsoft has also taken Photo Gallery and Movie Maker out of the Windows package and will now offer the apps as a separate downloadable package, albeit free, called Windows Live Essentials. The package also includes the formerly bundled Windows Mail, Live Messenger, and Writer. This may help shrink Windows 7's disk footprint profile in comparison to Vista for review purposes, but it's not clear why this is listed among Windows 7's core new features in the company's marketing.

Rather than attempting to sell these apps as Apple does with iLife, Microsoft is hoping to direct attention toward its Live offerings, which include the company's email (Hotmail), Messenger IM, and other online services that primarily compete against Google's products. By making Windows 7 users sign up with Live to download their basic apps, Microsoft hopes to better leverage its operating system monopoly to increase its web services audience at Google's expense.

This may set off new controversy in monopoly abuse, just as Google filed complaints earlier when Microsoft attempted to do the same thing by tying Vista's desktop search in to its Live Search service. Lackluster adoption of Vista muted Microsoft's ability to make major inroads into search and online services, but the company remains targeted on "killing" Google, an intent Ballmer famously announced back in 2005.

Streamlined device management

A more significant improvement in Windows 7 is the new "Devices and Printers" control panel (below), which lists all of the installed devices graphically, from printers to scanners and cameras to MP3 players to displays to mice and keyboards, as well as an interface window for handling driver setup called Device Stage.

Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7


Products that support Device Stage install options that let you work with that device (below), and also pop up as icons in the Taskbar, similar to how Print Center handles printers in Mac OS X. Microsoft has more to do in this area than Apple because Windows is expected to work with a wider variety of often oddball hardware. Still, it remains to be seen how many devices will arrive with special support for the new feature, and how many manufactures will write support for their existing products. At CES, Ballmer demonstrated Nikon's D90 camera with Windows 7, as it has special support for Device Stage.

Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7


In contrast, Apple itself builds all of the video hardware that can be used with Mac OS X, and most other peripherals use autoconfiguring USB or Firewire. Apple also delegates some device configuration for cameras, iPods, and the iPhone to applications such as iTunes and iPhoto, leaving all the technical details on attached devices compiled within the more utilitarian System Profiler, accessible from the "About this Mac" menu. Rather than navigating a special screen to take pictures off your camera, you use your regular photo application or access them directly in the Finder like any other storage device.

Apple's tight integration between its operating system and its hardware means there's often less to configure. It also makes it possible for Apple to quickly roll out new features that have both hardware and software components. With Vista, Microsoft attempted to release a specification for adding a secondary LED panel to the back of laptops to enable users to access some information while the system was asleep, to mitigate the long resume from sleep times associated with Vista. However, OEMs didn't rush to support the new idea, dubbed SideShow, and a lack of interest among consumers ended up scuttling the concept.

Out of Touch

Microsoft jumped on the multitouch bandwagon as the iPhone launched in 2007, and made some bold predictions about how it would deliver multitouch user interfaces on mobile phones and consumer PCs by 2010. After euphoria about the Surface kiosk table demo wore off, it became obvious that nobody would really want to trade their mouse or trackpad for the opportunity to keep an outstretched, fatigued, and oily hand on their screen.

Even so, Microsoft notes on its Windows 7 website that "if you've got a touch-screen monitor, you can just touch your computer screen for a more direct and natural way to work," adding, "large touch-sensitive areas on the Start menu and the taskbar make it easy to use."

Windows 7 now positions touch features as part of Media Center (depicted below, from Microsoft's Windows 7 website), noting that you can use touch to record your TV shows, if you also have a touch sensitive television screen or a huge touchscreen monitor that you use to watch TV or as your DVR programing station. On its website, Microsoft notes that "the ability to watch and record live TV or navigation through the use of 'touch,' may require advanced or additional hardware."

Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7


New: Less Vista

Other enhancements Microsoft is touting in Windows 7 sound similar to Vista's marketing, including faster startup, shutdown, and resume from sleep speeds. But the company is also focusing attention on new performance and usability improvements over Vista, essentially marketing Windows 7's departures from Vista's originally touted features as a feature in itself. There's much less attention on gloss and a new effort in place to present fewer system interruptions due to warning messages like those associated with User Account Control.

Users will be able to configure a threshold for system warning and notification popups, and those messages will be consolidated within the new Action Center, rather than scattered around in "ten Windows features" that previously presented system alerts of some sort. In Vista, for example, anti-virus and malware messages and warnings might appear in Security Center or in Windows Defender, which Microsoft had acquired separately. Now they are all listed in Action Center's central location (below).

Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7


Actual new consumer-facing features in Windows 7 are slight enough for Microsoft to refer to "screen dimming" as significant new feature related to battery life. The Windows 7 website notes, "Bright idea: With a display that dims automatically, you get longer battery life" (below). This feature has been in Windows for at least fifteen years, so it appears the company is rather desperately scraping the barrel for features it can promote in its new operating system release.

Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7


Apple's approach to developing and marketing Snow Leopard couldn't be more different. Last year, the company introduced the new operating system by suggesting it would have no new features at all apart from new support for Microsoft's Exchange Server, following the push messaging support Apple had integrated into its iPhone 2.0 software. However, the company later filled in details that indicated that Snow Leopard was more than just a minor update with some performance enhancements and push messaging. The next segment will look at major features Apple is sneaking into Snow Leopard, along with other big differences in strategy between the two companies and their upcoming operating system releases.