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Best Technology of 2009: Windows 7

Windows 7 arrived this year in a world that is quite different from that of Vista's birth three short years ago. We're still struggling to escape the grasp of the worst global economic collapse in almost one hundred years. The PC market, aside from low-cost netbooks and high-cost Macs, is at a standstill, with overall sales expected to drop somewhat in 2009 compared to the previous year. Wider industry trends suggest that the move to mobile, cloud-based computing is accelerating with more and more people finding the computing solutions they need on smart phones and in web services instead of traditional PCs. And Windows Vista, the predecessor to Windows 7, suffered a credibility hit because of early compatibility and performance issues, sure, but more from the effects of ill-informed tech pundits and bloggers, and of course from a relentless advertising attack from Apple.

This is no environment in which to launch a new desktop operating system. To a growing generation of users, such systems are increasingly anachronistic, a symbol of the past and not the future. As someone who has been largely concerned with What Comes Next for over a decade now, I find it hard not to fall into this curiously comforting worldview. I see cloud computing as not just the future but as the present as well. I look to India, China, and developing nations around the world and know that, for the majority of people now living on this planet, it will be a smart phone and not a traditional PC that defines their connection to the outside world.

And yet, I think it would be overly simplistic to write off Windows or the machines on which it runs. This year, PC makers will ship almost 300 million PCs and though the 2009 numbers are down a bit overall when compared to the previous year, we can thank the economy for that. Microsoft, too, still prints money with Windows, and despite its first-ever year-over-year slip in that market, Windows still represents $14 billion in revenues a year, 75 percent of which is pure profit. And my guess is that Windows 7 will institute a nice little turnaround, both for Microsoft and for the wider industry.

Windows 7: Elegant, simple, and effective.

More important, Windows 7 is good for users, and that, ultimately, is where my heart is. Whereas Windows Vista (and, to be fair, every version of Windows that preceded it) came with some number of caveats, making a blanket recommendation all but impossible, Windows 7 requires no such qualification. It's better than the version of Windows you're currently using. (And if you're not using Windows, it's better than that, too, as you'll eventually discover.)

This is an amazing and unprecedented claim and one I do not make lightly. Consider Windows Vista as an obvious comparison. At its release, Vista was as hard to describe as it was to grasp, with weird technological tendrils everywhere, many of them dead-ends from the aborted Longhorn initiative. It didn't run well on anything but the newest hardware of the day. And when it first shipped, it wasn't broadly compatible with some of the hardware and software customers wanted to use. Vista was widely panned for reasons both real and imagined, a situation I found exasperating, mostly because Microsoft actually fixed most of Vista's real-world problems pretty quickly. But the damage had been done, and with Apple chipping away time and time again with its anti-Vista advertising, the die was cast. Vista was deemed a disaster, fairly or not.

And then there's Windows 7. It's whisper quiet, with almost none of the annoying pop-ups and reminders that made Vista the butt of jokes. It's lightning fast, and that's true whether you're using a low-end netbook with just 1 GB of RAM or a high-end gaming rig. It's hugely compatible with today's hardware and software, and even includes "last mile" compatibility solutions like Windows XP Mode, just in case. It can stream tons of digital media content over your home network and the Internet to other PCs, and devices, including a growing range of compatible digital picture frames, TVs, Xbox 360 video game consoles, and other set-top boxes. Can your Mac do that? No. It cannot.

Windows 7 is fun and exciting, and it's poised for the future. It works seamlessly with Tablet PCs, touch-enabled computers, and multi-touch enabled computers and screens. It's optimized for SSD (solid state drive) hardware, multi-core processors, and seamless transitions between different wireless network types. It runs on a dizzying variety of PC form factors, and is equally at home playing the very latest 3D games as it is in a corporate boardroom or datacenter.

But don't take my word for it. Just try it for yourself. When you do, you'll see the revolution for what it is. And you'll understand, as I do, that Windows 7 is very obviously the best technology released this year.

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