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Microsoft, With Windows 7 Upgrade, May Be In a Bad Fix

The path to upgrading Windows XP to Windows 7 might charitably be described as "ugly" in many scenarios. That can't be good news considering the myriad problems the software giant has been facing.

On both fresh hardware and on first-look upgrades from Windows Vista machines, Windows 7 met the world looking like a champ. Its interface is cleaner, Microsoft has taken a lot of the annoyance out of its User Account Control (UAC), clean installations on newer hardware are very, very smooth. Tested on desktops, notebooks - - even some netbooks - - the word came back: This is what Vista should have been all along.

Upon closer look, though, it appears as though Windows 7 could actually be more of a challenge for businesses than Vista ever was. The upgrade path from Windows XP - - which is still the predominant desktop OS in businesses - - can be described graciously as "ugly." In attempts at simulated enterprise upgrade testing, as well as in real-world testing on single systems with existing-but-not-brand-new PCs, a series of important-to-know problems are beginning to emerge.

One at a time, these problems can be blown off as inconsequential or simply what happens during beta testing and an upgrade process. But, taken together, these problems are appearing all at once after Microsoft's botched XP-to-Vista upgrade and during the worst economic decline in generations. Not only may businesses have difficulties putting money aside for developers, engineers and new hardware, but third-party vendors who typically upgrade drivers and devices to work with new OSes are experiencing layoffs and downsized engineering staffs. They may find themselves harder pressed than ever to keep up.

Windows 7 may be in beta, but next year's budgets are being written right this minute. In governments and businesses across the land, IT planners are asking questions. Unless problems are solved very, very quickly, the answers - - based on what we've seen in the CRN Test Center lab - - don't look as promising as many would like.

We've almost lost count of the number of blue screens we've seen in the CRN Test Center during the Windows 7 evaluation process. In some cases, PCs we've used just won't upgrade at all to Windows 7. In others, important functions have to be disabled or eliminated to get it to install as an upgrade.

To upgrade to Windows 7 on a Fujitsu Lifebook S series notebook, we had to uninstall the media reader and other drivers. We tried to do the upgrade on an Acer TravelMate, but were stopped in our tracks by Bluetooth driver incompatibilities. On a series of 3-and-a-half year old ThinkPad T43s, an IBM security processor refused to let the notebooks boot up with Windows 7. We needed to crack open a couple of four-year old desktops (old but not ancient by business lifecycle standards in many quarters), to add memory just to try to get a system image.

While Microsoft has assured the world that if the hardware works with Windows Vista it will work with Windows 7, the reality is that is misleading at best. We've seen with our own eyes in the Test Center lab that systems we could upgrade from XP to Vista refused to upgrade from Vista to Windows 7.

Across the XP-Vista-Windows 7 landscape, Microsoft has fostered an ecosystem that now holds out the prospect of a mind-numbing number of incompatible drivers, unsupported devices, unsupported applications, unsupported data, patches, updates, upgrades, "known issues" and unknown issues.

Sound familiar? That's what people used to say about Linux.

A solution provider can now expect to spend many hours, billable or otherwise, dealing with all the extra pain points brought about by having to navigate through a mine field of three concurrently used Microsoft operating environments. And now Microsoft is on track to end standard support of Windows XP by May. That means businesses can either upgrade to Vista, pay Microsoft a fee for XP support or simply roll the dice and take their chances with an unsupported Windows XP.

Or they could opt to give Linux or Apple's Mac OS X a try. That's not as crazy an idea as it may have been in years past and the numbers tend to back that up. In its most recent fiscal quarter, Microsoft executives said they estimated they actually lost about one percent of market share and saw their client (primarily desktop OS) business shrink. When was the last time you saw a monopoly power in any industry lose market share against its will?

If Windows 7 was supposed to fix many of the problems that emerged during the Vista rollout, we'll need to wait for more positive signs to be optimistic that will happen.

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