Monday, July 06, 2009

Detroit NFB 2009 Day 3: My Windows 7 Presentation For The Computer Science Division

The room for Computer Science was kind of small this year and we were up against some other fantastic Division meetings. And a lot of people who wished they could attend my talks were working registration or they were in the Exhibits. Still we had a good crowd and a good time nevertheless.

Due to some technical difficulties my prepared speech of some 14 pages got condensed down to 20 minutes plus some time for a few well thought out questions from the audience. Most of the inquiries are answered in my full text. So, as promised, here is my original notes for my Windows 7 presentation.

Feel free to write or tweet or comment below if you have follow up questions. And thank you all for coming to the meeting or reading this on TRS.

Oh, by the way, the title is kind of a play on the late Dr. Timothy Leary’s last words before he passed on a few years ago. This is kind of an inside baseball remark to a friend who told me that only someone who was on drugs could like and defend Vista. I guess I’m trippin again with 7.!

Why 7? Why Now? Why Not?

I would like to thank the President of the Computer Science Division for allowing me to come here today to discuss the exciting new version of Windows that will be released in the fall of 2009. This is my third time speaking before this group on the subject of Windows and I truly believe that the third time is the charm for both Windows 7 and myself on making this presentation a more streamlined and User Friendly experience.

As I seem to be the last presenter today, and to stave off many who will be checking their watches and edging towards the doors, let me say that I am very upbeat about Windows 7. And I will try to be brief in my explanation of my next sentence. Windows 7 will be the most approachable version of Windows ever for the Blind who wish to buy, install and run the latest version of Windows, alongside their sighted peers, on the day that the operating system is released to the public.

Over the next few minutes I will explain that sentence by breaking it down into the “Who, What, Why and Whens” of how Windows 7 will affect you and your computer buying decisions for the next three years. But before we discuss those topics we need to establish some Windows history first.

Windows XP, hold for cheers from the crowd, is the most misunderstood version of Windows. It also enjoys a lot of revisionist history as well. And that is because the Windows XP that people praise today is a remote cousin to the Windows XP that graced our hard drives in 2001. The years, and the public, have been kind to XP, however, I will now show you XP’s high school yearbook pictures in order to prove that the ugly duckling did indeed become a beautiful swan.

In 2001, the home computer buying public was faced with three choices. Go for Windows 98 Second Edition, go with this new Windows XP thing or skip Windows all together and buy a Mac. It is hard to believe now but Apple had not even released the first iPod yet when XP was unleashed onto the scene. The possibility of using an Apple computer was not a viable one for a Blind user due to the first versions of the OS 10 platform having no Screen Reader, Braille Display support or even a Screen Magnifier available. That left many Blind users with the choice between XP and ME on the purchase of their new computers. So, many Blind and non Blind computer users chose to remain with 98 SE because Windows ME was bad but the perception was that XP was even worse.

For big business, the changeover from Windows NT to Windows 2000 was hard enough to orchestrate. This meant that considerations for another migration to Windows XP shortly into Windows 2000’s life cycle were out of the question. Many of them also chose to ignore the first releases of XP and many still went on to stick with Win2k even into the Vista era because that version of Windows met all their needs quite nicely.

Microsoft undauntedly moved on to promote XP as it had done previously with 95 and 98. A large effort undertaken by Microsoft to launch XP in a glitzy way by blitzing the world with tons of television ads, demos and a series of launch events around the United States fell flat shortly after the initial launch date. The costly marketing effort seemed to be ineffective with the public and the Press. Some pundits of the time were quick to say that the “Start Me Up” Windows 95 campaign provided a more compelling offer for users to switch to the latest version of Windows. Some even speculated that Windows XP was just another variation on the existing theme of Windows. This, of course, would not be the only time the phrase “run out of gas” would be used when discussing a new version of Windows.

[As a side note, the XP launch events also served as a marketing tool for the newly released Xbox videogame system. I remember it clearly as the Xbox portion of the launch party directly followed, with no break in between segments, the demonstration of backwards compatibility for older Windows 3.1 spreadsheet programs. Talk about going from one extreme to another. Here isan Accounting program and now here is a bunch of loud music with a backdrop of videogame footage. Then some poor person came out to discuss the joys of Enterprise Server Deployment of the new operating system. Surreal was a word that could have applied to the proceedings for sure. If you ever have the opportunity to go, I highly suggest you attend one of these Microsoft events as the food is generally quite good and the show ends up being humorous a lot of times either by design or default.]

Early adopter’s cries and common complaints started to undo the marketing hype. Some of their chief concerns were…

It takes too long to boot.
The driver support is terrible.
Why does it need so much RAM?
Why can’t I stay with the version of Windows I already have?

As crazy as it seems people ordered systems with Windows 98 and ME for two years after XP’s public release. Companies like Dell and Gateway proudly announced that they hadn’t given up support for 9x systems and you could still “downgrade” to a shiny new copy of 98 Second Edition today. And many decided to take that familiar road instead of forging ahead on the newly paved freeway of gold that was XP.

For Blind users of Assistive Technology the freeway to XP had no onramps to it as the adoption of Windows Xp support took some companies almost an entire year before they released compatible versions of their hardware and software programs. The loss of the DOS shell caused some AT makers to begin development again from scratch. While some Video Magnifier companies had to re-engineer their units from the ground up as XP relied on a new method of displaying video which rendered some early Split Screen units inoperable with operating system.

XP struggled for the next three years, and one Service Pack, to find its place in the market. Driver support grew better with the inclusion of faster hardware. USB devices worked better in XP and the use of the 2.0 standard was exclusive to that version of Windows. Eventually some of XP’s biggest critics became proponents of the NTFS file system and the security it inherently offered over XP’s predecessors.

To understand how the perception changed for the public and XP one must first understand the Microsoft product life cycle. Each version of Windows contains a major and a minor release of the operating system. This change from major to minor versions is mostly seemless and the public is unaware that it has even transpired in most cases.

Windows 95, arguably the standout release of Windows as far as operating system landscape game changers goes, underwent three revisions during its life span. These were catogrized as Windows 95a, b and c editions. Version C was also marketed as “Windows 95 with USB Support”. Enabling that support was a technical nightmare that would take me hours to explain, however, the original 50-diskette Windows 95a was considered to be the major release and 95c was considered to be the minor revision update.

With that said, you might be thinking ahead by guessing that Windows 98 Second Edition is the minor release to the major version of the original Windows 98. Except Microsoft, or the Microsoft marketing department, threw everyone a curve ball on that iteration of the product. Windows 98 SE stands as more of a Service Pack than a revision update to 98. Which means, gulp, that Windows Millennium is the minor release to that line of Windows. What a way to end the majestic 9x series of Windows eh?

The trend deviates wildly though when we move back to understanding how things changed perceptually for XP. When looking at Windows XP more closely you have to approach it from one of two perspectives as XP leads a dual life. With XP the rules change and Service Pack 2 is the actual minor revision update to the original release from 2001. The SP2 update for XP added new features like a firewall, an update to Internet Explorer and some substantial changes to the Windows kernel that had not occurred before in the way that Microsoft approached with previous iterations of what constituted as a Service Pack release.

Microsoft released Service Pack 2 in August of 2004 to a great reception by the public and the press. Many noted the update’s vast changes to XP’s security and driver models. The revisions to Internet Explorer 6, chiefly the addition of a pop up blocker, were welcomed in with open arms. Memory management and some changes to the Direct X video API, along with advancements in computer hardware that could take advantage of these enhancements, made the purchase of new computer systems preloaded with XP SP2 a more attractive option. Those who sat on the fence on the prospects of upgrading their existing boxes to XP now found less risk involved in taking the plunge to move to the XP platform.

SP2 seemed to stabilize the operating system; however, the Assistive Technology Industry once again took months before they released compatible versions of their wears that could work convincingly with SP2. One major annoyance for some users came in the form of driver detection of some hardware on the first boot directly following the installation of the Service Pack. In some cases the sound card would not be detected by Windows which in turn meant that a Blind user had to rely on Braille Display support or sighted assistance to regain their abilities to hear any audio out of their computer systems. Moreover, another round of Video Magnifiers fell by the way side as some units were not capable of splitting the video signal beyond Windows XP at the Service Pack 1 checkpoint.

The success of Windows XP Service Pack 2, and the delays its successor underwent during the next two years, proved to be a double-edged sword. Sales for XP Professional started to increase with large companies, who had mostly remained in the Windows 2000 era, were now finally finding their way forward into the newer support model of NTFS. But, it also fueled the desire for these companies to fall back to the I.T. Professionals mantra of “wait until they release a Service Pack before we look at adoption’. This well-worn tenacity to reject any or all product releases until the first Service Pack was not a new philosophy amongst the I.T. community by any means. It had proven its self to be true before with other programs from Microsoft. Now SP2 had shown them that they were right again in their hesitation to accept the latest product release as their default standard OS.

The other side of the sword, however, was that success has many unforeseen downsides. And one of those downsides happened to be that Microsoft had significantly altered their release cycle for one of their flagship product lines by not packaging Service Pack 2 up as the classic minor product release seen in earlier versions of Windows. This deviation from the norm, when combined with Vista’s launch delays, meant that the life cycle for XP would not fall within the three years that generally separated major product releases of Windows.

Paul Thurrott of the Super Site for Windows has stated for years that Microsoft had done themselves a disservice by not rebranding, or even charging the public, for Windows XP Service Pack 2. His contention was that there were enough features, changes and benefits in SP2 to warrant a full-fledged self-contained minor release cycle of Windows. He also states at his website that Microsoft had made the ability to charge for product updates a more difficult task to pull off convincingly by confusing the public’s perception on the issues of what a product revision was, and what a Service Pack could be, in the release of Windows XP Service Pack 2.

Essentially Windows XP SP2 is its own platform release of Windows, making it really only five years old. However, the public has now been familiar with the XP brand as a whole for eight years. The name and brand are trusted industry stalwarts whose market reach are staggering in the numbers of systems running XP actively today. Momentum from this success was unheard of in the industry before and the showdown between irresistible force and immovable object was inevitable for any product that followed XP.

Windows Vista, pause for laughter, will undeservedly go down through the annals of Computer Science as one of the worst Windows releases.. well ever. I still personally believe that Windows Millennium holds that mantle but I do recognize why many feel this way even two Service Packs later. Let us go down the short list of complaints that have been lobbed at Vista .

It is slow.
It is bloated.
It is resource hungry.
It has driver support? Really?

“What has happened before will happen again” Quote from the Cylons of the reimagined Ron D Moore “Battlestar Galactica”.

History does have a tendency to repeat its self. This seems even more so when it comes to Windows. In fact, a writer for ZDNet wrote an article where he performed a “Find and Replace” and switched out Windows XP for Windows Vista. He then posted it as a new article about Vista with a sentence at the bottom of the article telling everyone about the switcharoo. His point was that every version of Windows undergoes the same arguments and the same view under the microscope from each generation of Windows users at the dawn of each release. Authors and tech enthusiasts who defended Vista found them immediately branded with the status of being a “Microsoft Fandboy”. A term hereby relatively unheard of until 2006.

Vista’s performance woes did it no favors, moreover, the stumble out of the gate provided long time competitors a ideal platform in which they could go after Microsoft in a more direct fashion or comparative way. The power of the Apple Switcher ads cannot be ignored when looking back at how Windows Vista was perceived by the public. The funny attack ads bordered on myth and untruths most of the time yet they were extremely effective because Microsoft chose not to recognize or respond to the spots in any way for several years. Oh yeah, 30 million iPod sales helped as well I might add.

If Apple was the hammer then big business was the anvil in how Vista emerged from the forge of controversy. To say that the Enterprise customer ignored Vista would be an understatement of colossal proportions. Businesses just didn’t say “No!” to Vista, they said “Yes” to XP in such a resounding way that Microsoft was forced to abandon their EOL or “End of Life” policy that would have ended some support for XP next year.

Patches, updates and two Service Packs down the line have done little to stop the flood of negativity towards Vista. Even an advertising blitz called “The Mojave Experiment” which showed people who never used Vista that they *could like* Vista boomeranged against the operating system because some didn’t like the “bait and switch” tactics used in the ads. No matter how it was tried Redmond couldn’t undo what Vista and Apple had successfully presented to the public at large.

Ironically, Windows Vista received a good reception from the Assistive Technology Vendors and it was a well-supported version of Windows even on day one. Serotek and G.W. Micro were ready to go with full support on the day of release. While Freedom Scientific, Ai Squared and Dolphin shortly followed with public betas of their products for those of us who dared to become an early adopter of the new operating system. Driver support for various makers of Braille Displays took a little bit more time. And some Video Magnifiers that use an USB connection still have issues when running in Vista today. Overall, as a whole, the AT Industry provided their best response yet to the changing of the Windows guard.

This brings us full circle, to why I am here today… Windows 7 is a direct and well thought out response to the critics, the competitors and the public’s opinions of Windows XP and Windows Vista. It is the first version of Windows to be released after Bill Gates’s retirement and with that Microsoft is out to show the world that they have a very different uptake on today’s computing solutions.

Let me now focus on the questions and concerns I mentioned earlier in how they relate to Windows 7.

Whom... is Windows 7 for really?

7 will undoubtedly be labeled as a kneejerk response to the public perception of Vista. Many will capitalize in making some comments to the quicker than usual release of the product. And others will say that this is just another “money grab” on Redmond’s part to make up for lost Vista revenue. But that really isn’t the case.

7 isn’t Vista 1.5, however, it is hard not to say that the two aren’t linked. As stated earlier 7 is the minor revision to Vista. However, like XP Service Pack 2, there have been some hefty changes to the core of Windows and these alterations are designed to appeal directly to the Home and Enterprise customer.

Pure and simple..The biggest advantage to moving to Windows 7 is that it runs astoundingly well on Netbooks. Additionally, in some cases, the operating system has been optimized for these smaller computers in ways that Windows of the past have not. Support for touch screens, Solid State Drives and the next generation of wireless connectivity are just a few of the advantages 7 has over XP and its older brother Vista.

Netbook sales are fast becoming one of the strongest areas of growth in the computer industry. Microsoft currently dominates the operating system market in this category at a level where 93% of all Netbooks are running some form of Windows today. A new and specifically designed version of Windows should continue to capture that segment of the market for years to come once Windows 7 comes preinstalled on these devices.

On the home computing side we have better security for home networks, out of the box playback for most commonly used media formats and new Sync and Device Stage technologies that will make mobile devices easier to connect and use the family’s desktop as a hub for many computer related activities.

Enterprise customers see the most improvement in features since the older days of NT and Windows 2000. Windows Server R2, which shares the Vista/7 code base, allows for a more integrated virtualization model, better remote desktop connectivity options and some crucial support to applications like SQL and Microsoft Exchange. Full disk encryption for remote drives, USB thumb drives and other removable storage media options provides an enticing improvement to consider over the limited similar features offered by Vista.

In short, it will be hard for companies to ignore the efforts given to meet their needs in this release of Windows. Even a full-blown version of Windows XP can be run within Windows 7/Server via the new “XP Mode” [or XPM] feature. Now that aging spreadsheet program that the company just cannot live without will now run within a real copy of XP without anyone knowing that they are really just running a virtualized version of XP within Windows 7. This disarms the classic debate about older program compatibility quite nicely and it will be another foot on the gas pedal of accelerated adoption for major corporations.

What… has changed to make 7 a better choice than XP or Vista?

To answer this I have to pull out the WayBack Machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman again to recall a bit of Vista history. Except we won’t spend as much time in the past as we did before.

One of the biggest problems Vista had was driver support. The long development time for Vista forced computer manufactures to stock pile XP systems. The component makers worked like crazy to meet the demands of Dell, HP, Acer and others had for these XP based systems and in turn they spent little time and effort on Vista compatibility. Microsoft did not make their task any easier with Vista’s numerous delays also playing their own part in the inability for the system makers to have stable drivers at Vista’s launch. T

A combination of a solid demand for XP and a moving target release date for Vista resulted in Microsoft standing at the altar with no one attending the wedding. Driver support for older devices, once Vista did launch, was either bad or nonexistent. In some cases it took months before stable drivers could evolve to a useable form. Some companies like Creative Labs had to be threatened by a user generated class action lawsuit in order for them to provide Dolby Digital 5.1 support for older lines of Sound Blaster cards. NVIDIA came under fire for their early support as well and it took almost until Vista Service Pack 1 before they too provided stable driver support.

Windows 7, conversely, finds its self at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to driver compatibility. Both Creative Labs and NVIDIA had working beta drivers available to the public one year ago and they are actively supporting equipment that by all rights shouldn’t be running Vista let alone 7. To their credit, as stated before, 7 shares a lot in common with Vista. So the development of stable drivers was not as intensive as it was during the time of Vista’s release.

And this brings me to my point on what has happened in the last three years since Vista. Many companies have worked on Vista development now for almost half a decade. This extended time with Vista, and the fact that 7 is a minor iteration of Vista, has provided Windows 7 with the best hardware and software compatibility support ever seen in a Windows release.

Two other factors have played a role in a kinder and gentler acknowledgement that Vista is not a horrible thing to be avoided at all costs [despite the public’s perception otherwise]. The rise of the 64 bit version of Vista has allowed those who covet their raw horse power the opportunity to go wild in the quest to build a more robust computer. Vista x64 allowed users to break the 4GB of RAM barrier while dangling the concept that one day their motherboards could hold up to 2 Terabytes of RAM one day. Bottlenecks that hold back XP from using bandwith more effectively are not a hindrance for those who are running Vista. Moreover, PC buyer’s guides that previously shunned Vista at launch now easily recommend Vista x64 based systems for the user who wishes to boast about what is under the hood.

The second factor is just now starting to have an impact on those who choose to continue to spurn the new and stay with the old. The option to *downgrade* your computer from a new version of Windows to an older edition did not start with Vista. Microsoft has allowed this practice for years. Vista made it fashionable, and practical, again. There is a terrible problem though for those who decide to take this route. Either XP drivers for today’s hardware are several years old or they are minor ports of other existing technologies used in a similar product line. Native support for XP drivers will become non-existent if Windows 7 does well initially.

Sure it is hard to ponder now a world without XP. The truth of the matter still comes down to the fact that equipment wears out, the user base will advance and at some point a company cannot support multiple versions of an operating system without it effecting their bottom line. Of course this change will not happen fast but it will happen this fall with everyone who chooses to buy a Windows based computer.

Why… should I upgrade to Windows 7?

The quick answer is this. If you bought a computer in the last three years that came preloaded with Windows Vista then you want to consider an upgrade to 7. Better, stronger and faster. Plus it doesn’t cost six million dollars to get all that bionic power that comes with Windows 7. True you might not get to use all the bells and whistles of touch screens and other new hardware advantages. Nevertheless, you will notice a jump in performance over Vista and that alone may be worth the price of admission.

If you are running XP, or if your computer is older than 2006, then I do not suggest you perform an upgrade to Windows 7. Older hardware generally responds well to 7 in many more ways than Vista. However, the benefits are very minor and you won’t see the price of the upgrade as a good investment to adding a few more years of life onto that aging system.

The XP user should really consider waiting until they buy a new computer system rather than create a Frankenstein tech support nightmare that can be an older system running 7. Ignore that part where I talked about the best driver support ever and hold off. It really won’t be worth your time, effort and money if you do upgrade that bargain basement flyer from 2004.

If you choose to go ahead with the upgrade, anyway, then heed this warning. Whatever issues prompted you not to upgrade your computer to Vista still exist in Windows 7. Slow processor? That will still be a problem in 7. Low end video card? That too will work against you in 7. That old printer or scanner would not work in Vista? Well it is highly probable that the same will occur in 7. So doing a healthy amount of research is a key factor in your mission to move that dot matrix printer into the 2010 era of computing.

When… can I lay my hands on a copy of Windows 7?

Microsoft has been very aggressive in their efforts to allow you to obtain a copy of Windows 7. A large scale preorder program started on June 26th and the public onslaught for $50 upgrades for Vista users to move to Windows 7 Home Premium buried the Microsoft Store up to their ears with requests. Microsoft has also stated that they will embark on a wide range of promotional pricing opportunities for Windows 7 Ultimate through various retailers.

Those who would rather have a free sample are still in luck. You will be able to download the Release Candidate version of the OS until August 15th 2009. This version will let you run 7 until June 30th 2010. In a way this lets you run Windows 7 as a trial for almost a year before you have to consider a purchase of the retail copy of the operating system. And many have downloaded 7 for that ability to “try before you buy”.

Those out there who wish to skip the beta/prerelease route will be able to line up outside their favorite stores on the night of October 21st. Windows 7 will go on sale, and come preloaded on new computers, starting on October 22nd 2009. But if you buy a new computer today Microsoft will give you a free upgrade to Windows 7 when it is released in October. This promotion varies from computer maker to computer retailer, therefore, you should consult with your retailer at the time of your purchase.

Windows 7 will come in several product editions. 7, unlike Vista’s product editions, does not vary wildly if you choose the Home track over the Professional tier of products. This time out MS has made it easier to understand what comes with what edition by having each ascending product contain all the features and functionality of the edition below that version of 7. Professional now has everything the Home editions have and Ultimate still has everything under all the other product editions. The need for Ultimate is not as great though if you are after the lion’s share of available product features. For most users Home Premium or Professional will suffice as both contain a large number of commonly used features.

So, you might be thinking, what about the needs for the Blind who use Assistive Technology? Well let me get back to that statement I said at the beginning of this talk. Windows 7 already has either full product support or beta support on hand from most of the AT software makers. Blind technology enthusiasts Rick Harmond and Mark Taylor have been posting their work with Windows 7 and Screen Readers since the public beta cycle began in January of this year.

Dolphin, G.W. Micro, Freedom Scientific and Serotek will have their products ready to go on the day of launch. A few Video Magnifiers, such as the iDex from FOCI, will work in Windows 7 but they are not actively supporting it as of this writing. Kurzweil 1000 will fully support Win 7 in the upcoming version 12 and Open Book will as well in an upcoming release.

You may have noticed that I ffeatured mostly Screen Readers in my last remarks on Assistive Technology. That is because Microsoft themselves have internally addressed the needs for some low vision users who do not rely upon speech assistance in their daily computer use. Windows 7 offers a full screen magnifier built into the operating system that could be easily compaired in quality to that of Screen Magnifiers from around 2002. While some Screen Magnification programs from Dolphin, Freedom Scientific and Ai Squared offer a tremendous number of excellent features.. most users who are new to vision loss will find that this new Windows Magnifier provides a better stopgap option until such time where those other programs would be needed for more intensive or long term use.

This new full screen magnification option joins a refined version of Vista’s Speech Recognition and the inclusion of touch screen technologies for accessibility in Windows. These options do not rival some of those built in features found within Apple’s Leopard but they do show us that there may come a time when Microsoft may rival those features within a future version of Windows.

Some of you may remember my Windows Vista talk in Dallas of 2006. Some of you also may remember that my talk became more of a debate with our esteemed guest from Microsoft near the end of that particular meeting. I had, and still believe I was right on many fronts, some concerns about Vista’s approach to hardware and the confusion that came about from the Vista Capable/Compatible/Ready upgrade programs. I was concerned about the AT Companies and their sluggish investments in working with Microsoft to have their products ready for a new technically aware Blind Community. And I was afraid that we would see patches and product updates for a long time as the Assistive Technology Industry strained to accommodate Office 2007 at the same time they faced down the barrel of support for Windows Vista.

In hindsight, the Vista problem took care of its self for many of the reasons I listed earlier. The same though can’t be said of 7 And I think this is why we need not fear this version of Windows. Now in 2011.. I might feel different about the next flavor of Windows. I hope to see you all again to discuss that release.

Take care and thank you for not leaving me in this room to talk to these four walls by myself.

My sincere thanks to the hard work and informative info these sites have posted over the years. If you want to learn more about Windows 7 these are some places to start reading.

The Super Site For Windows

Ed Bott’s Windows Expertise

Mary Jo Foley’s All About Microsoft

The Blind Geek Zone

The Mark Taylor Candle Shore Blog

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