For Windows 7, Microsoft tries addition by subtraction

New OS is an evolution of Vista, but does more with less

For most of Microsoft's history, it designed software the same way Detroit built cars during its mid-century heyday. Adding features was like building a bigger engine and longer tailfins. What could be finer? It may not be entirely coincidence that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer grew up in the Detroit area, the son of a Ford Motor Co. manager.

But influenced by the success of rival Apple's minimalist ethic as well as customer revolt over this "supersize me" ethos, Microsoft has started to come around to the idea that less may be more.

The primary innovation of Microsoft Office 2007 was introducing a radically overhauled interface called the "Ribbon" that successfully achieved two seemingly contradictory goals: Making Office less cluttered while exposing more of its deep well of features.

The Ribbon has mostly garnered rave reviews, and the productivity software suite has been a smash success.

Started two years before Office 2007 (though released at the same time), Windows Vista was honed to Microsoft's traditional design specification. As the operating system hit more delays, Microsoft tacked on more features, like a student turning in an extra-long paper, hoping to make up for its lateness.

While some customers appreciated Microsoft's effort, the majority have fixated on Vista's bloat, which caused sluggish performance on all but cutting-edge hardware, and its mediocre polish, ranging from malfunctioning printers to intrusive pop-up messages.

Windows 7 will be Microsoft's first try at introducing a new client operating system in which it applies the new math of addition through subtraction.

For sure, Windows 7 will add new features, including touch-screen capability. But nearly all of its improvements are refinements of Vista features, such as the security-oriented User Account Control (UAC), or taking away features and moving them to the Web.

While XP and Vista were different under the hood, Windows 7 and Vista are virtually identical.

"Of course, we are doing refinements, but is it the same kernel in Windows 7 as in Vista? Yes," said Mike Nash , corporate vice president of Windows product management, in an interview at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference. "Windows 7 may seem more evolutionary than Vista, but that is what customers are looking for."

Nash promised that Microsoft will resist the temptation to go back to its old ways. The final version of Windows 7 to be released in early 2010 won't have any additional features compared to the beta version given away to PDC attendees this week, he said.

"This is a feature-complete version of Windows 7," Nash said. "We are not adding features, just fixing bugs and edge conditions."

By contrast, Microsoft was doing major fiddling to Vista in the weeks leading up to its release to manufacturing in November 2006. So how can we trust Microsoft to hold to its promise?

"The good news is that we're very disciplined this time," Nash said. "We've never been this far along in the process." For instance, the application programming interfaces (APIs) for Windows 7 are already finalized, Nash said. That is key for developers who don't want to worry that software they build for Windows 7 will need to be rewritten or retested as Microsoft makes late changes.

Moreover, while software certified to run well on Vista may need to be retested to be officially certified for Windows 7, Nash said that "things that work on Vista should work on 7."

With all that, doesn't Windows 7 seem a bit like Vista Reloaded, or a Service Pack 3 in disguise?

Nash said that was a poor analogy. "It's certainly not a SKU of Windows Vista. It's not a new version of Windows Vista," he said.

On SKUs, or versions, of Windows 7, Nash declined to go into detail. Asked whether Microsoft would create a stripped-down version of Windows 7 that can run on low-cost, low-powered PCs, such as netBooks, Nash acknowledged that they "are an important part of the spectrum."

Despite the erasure of many Vista features for Windows 7, Nash said the new operating system won't be any slimmer. Microsoft is not even trying to do so, despite the many complaints about Vista's size.

"Would I trade a couple of megabytes [simply to undercut Vista's size]? No, what's more important is that we give OEMs a complete OS that they have control over."

The chief reason is Nash's insistence that Windows 7 include the most complete roster of device drivers possible, to ensure that fewer peripherals and devices break as they did on Vista.

"Turns out that when you get all braggy about the number of working device drivers, people don't care," he said. "They just want to know what percentage of drivers needed for their PC work."

The "they" Nash referred to are consumers and smaller businesses. But what about enterprise customers, who have mostly been putting off Vista or actively rolling back to XP? Will Windows 7 confirm that Vista is a dead option to them?

"I'm not clairvoyant enough to say," Nash replied. "We've made a lot of measurable progress in Vista SP1. We will walk the walk and talk the talk. Customers are going to make their own decisions."

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Eric Lai

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