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With support for Windows 7 ending, a look back at the OS

With support for Windows 7 ending and Microsoft ushering in the end of life for the OS, tech experts and IT pros look back at its legacy of reliability and stability.

With Microsoft's support for Windows 7 ending this week, tech experts and IT professionals remembered the venerable operating system as a reliable and trustworthy solution for its time.

The OS was launched in 2009, and its official end of life came Tuesday, Jan. 14.

Industry observers spoke of Windows 7 ending, remembering the good and the bad of an OS that managed to hold its ground during the explosive rise of mobile devices and the growing popularity of web applications.

An old reliable

Stephen Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner, said Windows 7 was a significant step forward from Windows XP, the system that had previously gained dominance in the enterprise.

Stephen KleynhansStephen Kleynhans

"Windows 7 kind of defined computing for most enterprises over the last decade," he said. "You could argue it was the first version of Windows designed with some level of true security in mind."

Windows 7 introduced several new security features, including enhanced Encrypting File System protection, increased control of administrator privileges and allowing for multiple firewall policies on a single system.

The OS, according to Kleynhans, also provided a comfortable familiarity for PC users.

"It was a really solid platform that businesses could build on," he said. "It was a good, solid, reliable OS that wasn't too flashy, but supported the hardware on the market."

"It didn't put much strain on its users," he added. "It fit in with what they knew."

Eric Klein, analyst at VDC Research Group Inc., said the launch of Windows 7 was a positive move from Microsoft following the "debacle" that was Windows Vista -- the immediate predecessor of Windows 7, released in 2007.

"Vista was a very big black eye for Microsoft," he said. "Windows 7 was more well-refined and very stable."

Eric KleinEric Klein

The fact that Windows 7 could be more easily administered than previous iterations of the OS, Klein said, was another factor in its enterprise adoption.

"So many businesses, small businesses included, really were all-in for Windows 7," he said. "It was reliable and securable."

Windows 7's longevity, Klein said, was also due to slower hardware refresh rates, as companies often adopt new OSes when buying new computers. With web applications, there is less of a need for individual desktops to have high-end horsepower -- meaning users can get by with older machines for longer.

Mark BowkerMark Bowker

"Ultimately, it was a well-tuned OS," said Mark Bowker, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "It worked, so it became the old reliable for a lot of organizations. Therefore, it remains on a lot of organizations' computers, even at its end of life."

Even Microsoft saw the value many enterprises placed in Windows 7 and responded by continuing support, provided customers pay for the service, according to Bowker. The company is allowing customers to pay for extended support for a maximum of three years past the January 14 end of life.

Early struggles for Windows 7

Kleynhans said, although the OS is remembered fondly, the switch from Windows XP was far from a seamless one.

"What people tend to forget about the transition from XP to 7 was that it was actually pretty painful," he said. "I think a lot of people gloss over the fact that the early days with Windows 7 were kind of rough."

The biggest issue with that transition was with compatibility, Kleynhans said.

"At the time, a lot of applications that ran on XP and were developed on XP were not developed with a secure environment in mind," he said. "When they were dropped into Windows 7, with its tighter security, a lot of them stopped working."

Daniel BeatoDaniel Beato

Daniel Beato, director of technology at IT consulting firm TNTMAX, recalled some grumbling about a hard transition from Windows XP.

"At first, like with Windows 10, everyone was complaining," he said. "As it matured, it became something [enterprises] relied on."

A worthy successor?

Windows 7 is survived by Windows 10, an OS that experts said is in a better position to deal with modern computing.

"Windows 7 has fallen behind," Kleynhans said. "It's a great legacy system, but it's not really what we want for the 2020s."

Companies, said Bowker, may be hesitant to upgrade OSes, given the complications of the change. Still, he said, Windows 10 features make the switch more alluring for IT admins.

"Windows 10, especially with Office 365, starts to provide a lot of analytics back to IT. That data can be used to see how efficiently [an organization] is working," he said. "[Windows 10] really opens eyes with the way you can secure a desktop… the way you can authenticate users. These things become attractive [and prompt a switch]."

Klein said news this week of a serious security vulnerability in Windows underscored the importance of regular support.

"[The vulnerability] speaks to the point that users cannot feel at ease, regardless of the fact that, in 2020, Windows is a very, very enterprise-worthy and robust operating system that is very secure," he said. "Unfortunately, these things pop up over time."

The news, Klein said, only underlines the fact that, while some companies may wish to remain with Windows 7, there is a large community of hackers who are aware of these vulnerabilities -- and aware that the company is ending support for the OS.

Beato said he still had customers working on Windows 7, but most people with whom he worked had made the switch to Windows 10. Microsoft, he said, had learned from Windows XP and provided a solid pathway to upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10.

The future of Windows

Klein noted that news about the next version of Windows would likely be coming soon. He wondered whether the trend toward keeping the smallest amount of data possible on local PCs would affect its design.

"Personally, I've found Microsoft to be the most interesting [of the OS vendors] to watch," he said, calling attention to the company's willingness to take risks and innovate, as compared to Google and Apple. "They've clearly turned the page from the [former Microsoft CEO Steve] Ballmer era."

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