Windows 7: The Revolutionary Evolution

Windows 7: The Revolutionary Evolution

January 2020 | Digital Transformation

The PC market has changed radically in the decade since Windows 7 was released. The gradual changes were the most successful.

Next week is a major milestone in the history of computing. On Tuesday, Windows 7 reaches end of life. Microsoft will stop releasing security updates and pull virtually all customer support for the ageing Operating System that once dominated the PC landscape. It's been just over a decade since the release of the most successful version of the famous operating system. Much has changed in that time, not least within Windows itself.

It's easy to overestimate the impact that Windows 7 had. It was not a revolutionary product. Many of its best ideas had their roots in the oft-ignored and much maligned Windows Vista. What it did do was fix the performance issues that bedevilled its predecessor and added an extra layer of polish that was sorely needed. Fortunately, that's all businesses and consumers wanted.

The Failed Revolutionary

Microsoft have twice attempted to revolutionise Windows in the past twenty years. Both projects failed. The first attempt never made it to market. Windows Longhorn was supposed to totally change the way people used computers forever, but instead became an expensive mess that could never be finished. It was cancelled after 3 years of development due to scope creep with the surviving components refactored into Windows Vista, but many of Longhorn's issues continued into the final release. The entire affair traumatised Microsoft for years and has been blamed for their subsequent failures in the mobile market.

At least Windows 8 made it to market, even if it was widely shunned by consumers because of a strange mix of desktop and mobile user interfaces. The OS was intended to be Microsoft's entry into the tablet market but suffered from the same problems that have also held back Android tablets: lack of apps and lack of a unique selling point. Subsequent Windows releases have rolled back many of the biggest innovations that accompanied Windows 8, killing off Microsoft's mobile ambitions in the process.

Evolving Consistency

Instead, it is the current version of Windows that has stolen the desktop computing crown. Windows 10 was very much an evolutionary release as well, despite the controversy surrounding telemetry and privacy settings that surrounded the first few years of the OS. The basic user experience of Windows 10 is very similar to Windows 7. It's only when you delve into the settings screens and the internals that pronounced differences emerge. The same was broadly true of the jump from Windows XP to Windows 7. Microsoft completely changed control panel and much of Windows' inner workings, but many less sophisticated users made the jump easily and carried on using their PCs exactly as they did before. It was only much later that the UX innovations in the newer versions were adopted by the masses.

If you look at how the average PC user opens files and launches applications compared to a decade ago then much has changed. App shortcuts have migrated to the taskbar from the desktop, start menu search is an accepted way of finding stuff, and browsers are central to the PC experience. None of that was true when Windows 7 was launched in late 2009. The Programs menu and desktop shortcuts ruled. Now barely anyone uses the former and there are a lot less of the latter. That's not a change anyone consciously made, it just happened over time as people explored new ways of doing things. Pinned taskbar shortcuts and Start Search are Windows 7 and Windows Vista innovations that got adopted gradually over the span of a couple of years, thanks to the help of a few gratuitously placed defaults.

Under the Hood

At launch, the initial benefits of both Windows 7 and Windows 10 were in the areas users didn't see every day. 7 was the first popular version of Windows to be secure by design. 10 was the first popular version of Windows to be cloud-native by design. At the user level, this manifested as User Account Control security notifications in 7 and login using Microsoft Accounts in 10. Underlying all this was far reaching changes to the deepest levels of the operating system. These changes needed to be made for Windows to remain relevant in the modern computing landscape, but weren't going to sell computers on their own.

In some quarters these necessary low-level architectural changes were resisted, as they came with significant downsides. Cloud integrations have privacy costs that don't always measure up to the user-facing benefits. They also make working offline much harder. The security features of Windows 7 broke applications, introduced friction for non-technical users and blocked customisation options that technical users took for granted in earlier versions. These were minor grumbles in the grand scheme of things. Windows 7 was genuinely popular among both technical and non-technical users, but a small portion of the user base refused to upgrade and ultimately moved to competing platforms. The same has happened with Windows 10.

Paying for Change

Perhaps the biggest change of all since Windows 7 is in Microsoft's business model. Making money from a mature computing platform is a challenge that many technology firms have grappled with over the past decade. People don't pay for software upgrades unless they can contain user-facing features they actually care about. It's been decades since any desktop PC software update actually managed to meet that threshold among the broad mass of non-technical users. Yet, software needs to be regularly updated to cope with changing hardware, external security threats and new ways of working. What's more, the development effort required to make those updates needs to be funded.

Until recently, software was still mostly sold as a boxed product. Consumers mostly paid for major updates when they upgraded their PC or encountered limitations that were fixed by a newer version. In 2020, the very concept of a boxed software product seems antiquated. In 2009, it was the norm. Apple only stopped charging for new macOS versions in 2013, until then users had to buy them in exactly the same Windows users did. Microsoft stopped charging for Windows feature upgrades with the release of Windows 10 in 2015.

It's easier for a device vendor such as Apple to sell you a software upgrade based on hardware benefits. The newer software you're getting is a nice bonus for the consumer. An application vendor such as Adobe can move to a subscription model, so long as their products are better than the Open Source alternatives. Google fund Android development using in-app advertising. Accompanying all these business models are free annual software updates that deliver the latest user-facing features as well as any necessary internal system changes.

Vendor Driven Change

This move to subscription software and ad-supported software was not driven by consumers. Vendors forced the change in order to generate steadier and more predictable revenue streams. The old model worked well for consumers who simply didn't update, but led to extreme variations in quarterly profits for technology firms depending on the release cycles of new products. Adobe's switch to a subscription model was very controversial at the time. Google are still struggling to persuade Android customers and device makers to update their phones to the latest versions. It was actually easier for Microsoft to make the switch than most because traditional retail sales have always been a small part of overall sales. Most Windows revenues came from sales of new PCs or from subscriptions to the enterprise version.

The net impact of this is that next week's Windows 7 End of Life event will be the last of its kind. Windows 10 updates are now free and are eventually forced on users automatically if they don't update. It is possible to block updates if you really want to. Only geeks and businesses actually bother. Even then, both groups are well aware of the security and compatibility reasons why updates are necessary. They eventually make the jump, but only when they're ready to do so. Adjusting to the new world of continuous updates has been a challenge for everybody, but most have now made it. Software End of Life is now a fact of life.

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.