With the first public alpha release of Windows 7 due Monday at the Microsoft PDC2008 conference, the outline of the new operating system is taking shape. What you won't see when that alpha comes out is the way that Microsoft will try to use Windows 7 as a Trojan horse in its war against Google.
Google's domination of the search market continues unabated, but Microsoft hasn't given up on it. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently said that his company is willing to lose "5 to 10 percent of total operating income for several years" to fund its ongoing attempt to make inroads into the search market. Much more than search is at stake. Google wants to replace Microsoft's desktop-based applications, such as Office, with its cloud-based applications, such as Google Docs.
So where does Windows 7 come in? What new features can Microsoft possibly introduce that will help it overtake Google in search and retain its domination of productivity software such as Office?
Microsoft's secret weapon in Windows 7 is not what features the operating system has, but instead what features it doesn't have. Microsoft is stripping Windows 7 of some of Windows' best built-in applications, and it's making them available only as downloads on its Windows Live site.
When Windows 7 comes out, it won't include Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Movie Maker, which are some of Vista's most useful applications. Windows Movie Maker is a surprisingly sophisticated piece of software for creating videos and DVDs, and it's worthy of being sold as stand-alone software. Windows Photo Gallery is a well-done, elegant way to manage digital photos. And Windows Mail is the successor to Outlook Express, with a very big installed base. Expect users to howl in protest when they find those applications gone, particularly Windows Mail.
To get them, users will have to visit the Microsoft Windows Live site, where the software can be downloaded for free. And, of course, there will be plenty of other Windows Live software they can download, as well as other Windows Live services they can use. It's a variation on the classic "loss leader" in retail, where you lure folks in with freebies and then pounce with a hard sell.
Microsoft claims that it is stripping the applications out of Windows 7 because it makes for a "cleaner" operating system. But there are plenty of useless applications it could strip out of Windows to no ill effect. The backup program in Vista, for example, is close to useless. And as for People Near Me or Windows Meeting Space -- do you use either of those programs? Do you know anyone who does? Those could easily go to make for a cleaner operating system. And while Microsoft is at it, it could get rid of User Account Control. I don't know anyone who would cry real tears if that one bit the dust.
I expect that there will be plenty of other hooks in Windows 7 to get people to go to Windows Live. And I don't expect all of those hooks to be consumer-oriented like Photo Gallery and Movie Maker. Don't be surprised if there are enterprise-related hooks as well.
All this may be clever marketing, but it won't work. Microsoft may be able to push users to Windows Live, but if it doesn't build better search and better services than Google, people will stay with Google.
If Microsoft wants to eat into Google's share of the search market, there's only one thing it can do: Build better search. If it wants to make sure that Google doesn't threaten its near-monopoly of productivity suites, it will need to make some version of Office available over the Internet.
The key to battling Google is building better software and services. Stripping useful applications out of Windows isn't the way to win the war.
Computerworld contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works and Windows Vista in a Nutshell. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.