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Nearly 20 years have passed since I first laid eyes on Windows. It was 1990 in the student computer lab at Suffolk University; a room full of bright white Gateway desktops running Windows 3.0. Compared to the GUI-driven Macs I used in high school years earlier, the early version of Windows was kludgy and lacked flexibility. But it was far more approachable than the Microsoft standard of the day, MS-DOS 4.0.

Windows has certainly come a long way in over the last two decades. It’s gone from an adolescent GUI layer riding on top of DOS to a full-featured platform that’s easily understood by users and extensible for application developers. Microsoft was founded on DOS, but Windows is what transformed the company into a software powerhouse. And Windows gave ISVs and hardware manufacturers a platform for their wares that eventually fueled the growth of the channel and gave VARs ample opportunities for selling IT into customers of every size and shape.

CHECK OUT: Windows from Start to 7 — a Retrospective

Microsoft sees tomorrow’s launch of Windows 7 (what some people call Vista Service Pack 2) a release of redemption for the mistakes it made with Windows Vista. The IT community–particularly PC manufacturers – see Windows 7 as a start point for a long overdue refresh cycle. The channel sees Windows 7 as a chance to approach customers with a fresh product and better OS story.  But the Windows 7 launch may actually mark the end of an era in which software-makers and users are locked into a predictable release-refresh-upgrade cycle. In fact, Windows 7 may be the last major software release that generates mass market momentum.

The world is changing rapidly, and businesses and computer users are becoming increasingly resistant to being platform constrained. Microsoft continues to dominate the desktop and browser markets, but is increasingly losing share to longtime rivals like Apple and Linux for operating systems and Firefox and Google Chrome on the browser. The bedrock of the Microsoft business, Office, took its first tumble this year as sales fell under the weight of the recession and the growing adoption of free, Web-based productivity suites, such as Google Apps and Zoho. Windows could be next.

The IT market – vendors and solution providers alike—want Windows 7 to succeed. The early reviews of the operating system have been generally positive, with many saying Microsoft has cleaned up many of the problems that plagued Vista and caused many businesses to skip upgrading from Windows XP over the last two years. Windows 7—the redeeming product—is being touted by Microsoft, analysts and many PC vendors as the catalyst that will revive the recession-raged PC industry. Businesses won’t just upgrade their operating system, they’ll upgrade their equipment and refresh other software packages and peripherals. A successful Windows 7 launch means cascading waves of success rippling across the entire IT industry and channel.

When I blogged about the prospects of Windows 7 failing, solution providers chimed in with tepid optimism. Many said that they liked the improvements, features and stability of Windows 7. But most didn’t expect Windows 7 to be the blockbuster product in the sense of previous versions, such as Windows 95, 98 or 2000.

If history repeats itself, the Windows 7 launch will follow a well-worn adoption curve. The October release comes in time for the holiday shopping season, which means all the PCs on the shelves at Best Buy and Walmart will be preloaded with Windows 7. Businesses—particularly enterprises—will pickup Windows 7 with new PCs, but will resist full deployments until Service Pack 1 is released. Solution providers will find ample work in migrating businesses to Windows 7, since the process isn’t exactly easy.

Windows 7 comes at a time when the market is becoming less enamored with on-premise systems and more accepting of cloud-based services. Everyone from Google and to local solution providers are now offering cloud-based applications, hosted infrastructure and remotely delivered managed services. Microsoft is among the throng greedily eying this emerging marketplace with services such as hosted Exchange, Sharepoint and Office. Windows Azure is a cloud-based version of the operating system that will enable developers to create apps for cloud environments.

The cloud isn’t just disrupting on-premise software implementations, but also changing the nature of software development-release cycles. No more will users have to wait for the next version to come out on some preset schedule. Instead, cloud application companies will simply launch new versions and features as they become available. And because the cloud is agnostic to the hardware platform, new releases may not necessitate a PC refresh or operating system upgrade. The day may even come when an operating system isn’t needed on the client that serves simply as a cloud interface appliance. If the channel is a barometer of IT trends, then solution providers’ insatiable interest in everything cloud and managed services is a pretty good indicator that services is the wave of the future.

Windows 7 isn’t on the streets and there are already leaks about the development of Windows 8, which could arrive as early as 2011. By the time the next version is ready for general consumption, the world may already be beyond its need for Windows.


Lawrence M. Walsh is vice president and group publisher of Channel Insider. Click here to read his blog, Secure Channel, for the latest insights on security technology and policy trends affecting solution providers. 


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