Daniel Eran Dilger
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Exploring Windows 7 for Mac users

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Daniel Eran Dilger

Microsoft is getting ready to relaunch Vista under the new “Windows 7” brand, in the hopes that Windows XP users find it worth the upgrade. Will the new version make sense for Mac users who currently have some need to run Windows?
We installed the Windows 7 beta to find out. This article, the first in a series, will look at the features Windows 7 offers to Mac users, and what is involved in moving from XP. This initial segment looks at how Windows in general differs from Mac OS X as a retail product, and how Microsoft plans to learn from its experience with Vista in its launch of Windows 7 later this year.

Mac and PC switchers

Unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn’t have to convince Mac users to switch to new hardware in order to run its latest version of Windows. All Intel Macs sold since 2006 can run Windows either in a virtual environment mingled into the Mac OS X desktop (as examined in the previous article, “Installing Windows 7 beta on a Mac with Sun VirtualBox”), or run it natively on their Mac hardware once the system is set up using Apple’s Boot Camp tool.

Apple may have an easier time persuading PC users to switch to the Mac than Microsoft faces in trying to get today’s Windows users (including those on Macs) to shell out money for Windows 7.

Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign cites loads of reasons Windows PC users would want to upgrade to a Mac, from sleek hardware designs with tightly integrated features, to ease of use, to backward compatibility with Windows and Office, to an escape from the plagues of viruses that regularly attack Windows (as long as you don’t actually use your Mac to run Windows, that is).

Microsoft faces a tougher upgrade challenge with Windows 7. It is entirely a software upgrade, so it can’t dazzle buyers with sexy industrial design the way Apple’s retail stores present the Mac. But the biggest hurdle for Windows 7 may be that 2001‘s Windows XP works well enough for most people that they don’t see any need to upgrade. That may particularly be the case for Mac users with casual needs to run Windows apps.

While the new Windows 7 appears to be an improvement over Vista, the simpler Windows XP still remains faster and less demanding of resources than Windows 7, and it continues to offer fewer compatibility problems. Windows 7 inherits the same architectural changes from Vista that caused many using (including those using Macs) significant upgrade grief with their existing hardware and software.

Mac OS X versus Windows editions at retail

The difference in sales models between Apple and Microsoft also impacts Mac users who may be evaluating the move to Windows 7 on their Mac. Apple is the only major PC vendor to not license Microsoft’s operating system, so Mac users who need Windows must buy a retail box version.

Apple doesn’t sell its Mac OS X for use with generic PCs from other makers or assembled at home from components. Instead, Apple positions its operating system as a tantalizing reason to buy its custom hardware, using the same model Sun and Cisco use to market their high end servers and network routers, respectively.

Microsoft doesn’t sell different versions of PC hardware, so if the company packed in all its features into a single version of Windows, it couldn’t get any more money out of premium buyers than it gets from the cheapest of consumers.

To solve that problem, the company began making artificially differentiated versions of Windows, one for low-end Home users and another to sell to Professional business users. With Vista, the company came out with an even greater range of handicapped versions:

  • Home Basic: lacking the new Vista look, Media Center, DVD authoring, and all the limitations of Home Premium
  • Home Premium: limited to a single processor, no Directory Services features for accessing corporate networks
  • Business: limited to two processors, lacking drive encryption and other features in the Enterprise edition
  • Enterprise: tied to high end corporate accounts
  • Ultimate and Ultimate Extras: Business and Home Premium features together in the most expensive package, equivalent to Apple’s single Mac OS X desktop offering.
Apple doesn’t have different versions of Mac OS X, it has different versions of Macs. Apple also doesn’t tie its software license to a specific hardware box, nor does it use serial numbers or phone-home authorization as Microsoft does to prevent Windows from being installed promiscuously.

For Apple, Mac OS X sells Macs. For Microsoft, Windows has to sell itself. Apple funds Mac OS X development in part by charging a $129 retail upgrade fee ($110 mail order) with each new major release. New Mac buyers get the new software installed at no additional cost.

Microsoft makes 80% of its Windows revenue through bundling deals with PC makers, where it sells Windows licenses for much less (typically around $30), but in much greater volume. It has no real competitors in the desktop operating system market, so anyone who needs a copy of Windows (including Mac users) is forced to pay whatever Microsoft wants to charge.

For Vista Ultimate, that means $399 retail ($230 mail order), well more than twice the cost of Mac OS X. Since 2007, Microsoft has released one free service pack update to Vista, with a second in the works.

Mac users generally expect to pay for Mac OS X upgrades about every year and a half, and receive far more regular free updates in between. Since 2007, Apple has released three free updates to Tiger and six free updates to Leopard.

That’s nine free updates and one paid reference release, compared to one free update and one paid release at twice the price on the Windows side. Both Mac and Windows users can expect to again pay for a major upgrade this year, but it appears the Windows side will again cost twice as much, and take far longer to be updated to the point of solid reliability with its first service pack or two.

Microsoft’s much slower release cycle serves to explain why many Windows users are content to stick with XP, which is now quite stable at the release of its third service pack, rather than continually upgrade. On the other hand, Apple’s rapid release cycle keeps Mac users accustomed to regular upgrades with features that incrementally build upon past releases, rather than attempting to overshadow them with a monumental new version, as Vista did.

Windows 7

Lessons from Vista

The failure of Vista to sell as well as expected has resulted in some reevaluations of how Microsoft plans to market Windows 7, particularly on the features side. In other respects however, the company is sticking to its guns by carrying forward many strategies related to the Vista launch.

For example, Microsoft originally hoped to ship a stripped down Vista Home Basic on new PCs, pressing users who needed full functionality to upgrade their software to a more premium version directly through Microsoft.

Those plans failed as consumers rejected Vista and its upgrade cycle, and as PC makers recoiled at the thought of shipping neutered software on their PCs that would immediately require a paid upgrade to be functional.

Despite that poor reception, Windows 7 appears set to follow the same marketing plan. The beta being distributed represents the Ultimate version with none of the artificial restrictions that will appear in the final editions. Once the artificially limited versions hit the market, critics will likely have more to complain about.

Rethinking the User Interface

One area where Microsoft appears to be making real policy changes with Windows 7 over Vista relates to its user interface. Competition with XP was one of the biggest problems for Vista, so Microsoft originally attempted to make Vista a flashy upgrade. That strategy didn’t work so well, as most PC users just wanted something simple and familiar.

Microsoft doesn’t do particularly well when it faces real competition. The lack of competitors in the PC desktop operating system market has historically meant that the company could shoot out pretty much anything and still sell Windows licenses to PC makers.

Sales of PCs bundled with Windows 98, 98 SE, and then ME seemed to be completely immune to the increasingly horrible software Microsoft pushed out in the late 90s. However, after Windows 2000 and then XP launched, Microsoft raised the quality bar fairly high, giving itself a fair amount of competition to sell against.

In the new decade, rather than just issuing incremental updates for customers, the company retrenched to fix some of the more serious security problems in XP. By the time Vista arrived in early 2007, XP was working well enough to question the need to upgrade to something different.

That forced Microsoft’s marketing into overdrive to explain to users why they needed to get Vista. Despite those efforts, Vista launched two years ago as if it were a lead balloon. Individuals, businesses, and even PC makers insisted on returning to XP.

Critics who at first were in awe of the new system’s Aero looks quickly turned on the software upgrade as they discovered new layers of annoyance and complication in the interface, incompatibilities with existing hardware and applications, performance problems, and a general lack of any compelling reason to upgrade. Vista was not only significantly slower than XP on the same hardware, but also more expensive than XP had been.

Rather than working to “wow” users with more flashy marketing of surface features, Windows 7 actually sets out to tone things down and makes efforts to be more familiar, simple, and intuitive. It also intends to be faster than Vista across the board, from startup to resuming from sleep to overall operations and shutdown speeds.

In the following segments, we’ll explore the how Windows 7 sets out to make itself more attractive to potential upgraders and explore how well it seems to have achieved this. In particular, we’ll look at how familiar and usable Windows 7 will be to Mac users who currently have a need to boot into Windows XP.

Previous Windows 7 vs. Mac OS X Snow Leopard articles

Windows 7 vs. Mac OS X Snow Leopard: competitive origins
Windows 7 vs. Snow Leopard: Microsoft’s comeback plan
Windows 7 vs. Mac OS X Snow Leopard: Apple ups the ante

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  • gus2000

    “We’ve replaced Jim’s regular version of Windows with…Folger’s Crystals.”

    Recipe for Windows 7: One part XP, two parts Vista, three heaping teaspoons of Leopard.

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  • John E

    Solid background report. Look forward to next installment. yes, imitation is flattery.

  • The Mad Hatter

    I know how Microsoft can sell millions of copies – sell Ultimate at $50.00 for the boxed set, and dump all of the other versions except Enterprise. Of course that would depend on someone in the CEO’s slot actually having a clue…

    [That would make it too easy to upgrade existing PCs rather than replacing them with a new one, repressing new PC sales and angering Microsoft’s real customers, the PC makers. Microsoft isn’t interested in selling extra “millions of retail copies.” That would only transfer the burden of providing customer support from PC maker to Microsoft. The company couldn’t even make money servicing users who only paid $55 to install a new OS but then expected help getting things to work.

    For some of the same reasons, Apple doesn’t sell its software to PC users either. – Dan]

  • harrywolf

    So as I understand it, if you buy Windows 7, you are getting Vista thats a bit faster and with pieces missing so it wont be so annoying.

    How will this persuade anyone to change from XP?

    I use XP on an LG Netbook to run Navigation software with a USB GPS on my commercial boat.
    XP, although sometimes very stupid, and always ugly, is bearable, for the extremely limited task I allow it to d0.

    I believe that Apple could spend some of that $30 billion cash pile on bribing about 20 key software titles to port to OSX.
    That would increase Mac sales, I think. Should only cost them about a billion.

    Oddly enough, I am happy to NOT take my Macbook Air on the boat as I would rather risk a cheap ($400) XP Netbook being damaged than my beautiful Mac…….

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  • mailjohannes

    Windows Vista Ultimate is only $90 if you buy an OEM version.
    So this is a huge price difference compared to the $230 you mention. It’s also cheaper than Mac OS X.


    [Mac OS X can be obtained for free too if you disregard the licensing. Now try to install your OEM Vista license on the three PCs you have. Oops! Can’t. – Dan ]

  • mailjohannes

    “Mac OS X can be obtained for free too if you disregard the licensing. Now try to install your OEM Vista license on the three PCs you have. Oops! Can’t. – Dan ”

    The fact is that Vista OEM licenses are legally separately sold for $90. Its is maybe (because I heard that the license agreement is recently changed and less strict) less legal to install it on existing hardware; and some install difficulties have to be overcome, but that doesn’t change the common perception that ‘upgrading’ to Vista Ultimate isn’t expensive at all. And that’s the notion that counts.


    [And Mac OS X is widely pirated. The real point is that Microsoft sets its prices, and it sets Ultimate very high to make room for the other “editions” below it. If it sold it for $90, than it could only get like $40 for Home Premium. See how that works?

    Just because you can find something while bargain hunting doesn’t mean the real price most people pay is whatever deal you discovered. That’s just like the jackasses who insist that Dell PCs are much less because they have collected a bunch of coupons. Most people pay full price, which is why Dell uses artificial pricing to rip off the majority while providing fanboys with coupons and rebates to keep them from complaining about how expensive Dell PCs are. Apple doesn’t play that game. – Dan ]

  • T. Durden

    As I understand it, for many companies it’s not a matter of operating system – it’s about stuff like the availability of MS Office. The absense of VBA features in Excel for Mac can be a dealbreaker for many, considering the amount of these documents that are floating around. If the OS is pretty, if anti-virus programs need to be run etc just doesn’t factor in much.

    Guess it’s a different situation if you’re a photographer or something like that – for those professions there seems to be Mac software around that gets the job done.

    [Apple has made very little effort to tap into the Microsoft-dominated business market, and instead has targeted consumers, which are bringing Macs (and iPhones) back into business themselves. The problem with trying to take on business directly is that that large market is policed by a few gatekeepers who are already sold on Microsoft. The consumer market is open to competition, as everyone chooses for themselves what to buy.

    That’s why Apple is making great inroads into the consumer market (it effectively owns the consumer market for products $1000 and up), yet only just getting started among business users. Steve Jobs himself has pointed this out. It’s called low hanging fruit.

    That is also why people such as yourself cite how Microsoft is strong in business, because there really isn’t much else to say about the company. It has terrible consumer products, and its fairly decent business products suffer when the company tries to layer its consumer crap on top of them (see: Windows 2000 corrupted by the addition of Win98 junk, resulting in the Fisher Price XP, or Vista). Sweden is so beholden to Microsoft that it has ceded its ISO votes to the company. Those blinders are hard to take off, but they’re coming off slowly anyway. – Dan ]

  • elppa

    What 20 key titles are there which are missing from the Mac or don’t have a similar (often better) Mac alternative?

  • gus2000

    Software that’s Windows only, with no Mac alternative? Let’s see…

    1. Morris
    2. Melissa
    3. VBS/Loveletter
    4. Code Red
    5. Nimda
    6. SQL Slammer
    7. MYDoom
    8. Sasser
    9. etc., etc.

    It’s true that MS removed VBA support from Mac Office 2008, but it was in Office 2004 and should be in the next version. MS was trying to migrate to .Net but there are to many legacy users. (Of BASIC? Really? BASIC?!??)

    Of course, if someone required Fortran and Cobol then their choices would be limited, too. There are always going to be limiting factors in any platform, with both advantages and penalties for switching. Heck, even different distros of Linux are incompatible. :)

  • beanie

    Latest NetApplications share numbers for Jan 2009:
    WinXP 63.76% down 1.46%
    Vista 22.48% up 1.26%
    Mac OS 10.5 is 5.28%

    WinXP averages about -1% a month and Vista averages about +1% a month. By the end of the year, WinXP will probably be down to 53% and Vista will probably be up to 33%.

    Anyway, companies probably demanded WinXP because they wanted to buy cheap under-powered computers with 512M RAM. In the consumer market, WinXP has mostly been phased out already except for netbooks. In the consumer market, most computers have 3GB-4GB ram and comes with Windows Vista Home Premium.

  • mailjohannes

    “Just because you can find something while bargain hunting doesn’t mean the real price most people pay is whatever deal you discovered.”

    True, but only PC ‘experts’ buy separate Vista Ultimate licenses to install it on self made PCs. And bargain hunting is their speciality.
    The price most people pay is even lower, because they don’t assemble the hardware and buy a Dell or HP with Vista pre installed for $30 per copy.
    And most people don’t even see this Vista price tag, because it isn’t specified on the bill; you just buy the hardware and Vista is ‘for free’.


  • John E

    Dan mentioned in passing, but it is worth noting specifically that Apple effectively gives away its software. you or a friend can buy one copy of Leopard or iLife or iWork and install it on as many computers as you like – Apple has never enforced the license limits, not even tried. i’d bet the majority of Mac computers have such shared software. this is purposeful on Apple’s part, not laxity. obviously the business goal is to sell hardware and the software is the “loss leader.”

    MS can’t give away its software of course (except in the third world where its sells a very cheap Home Basic, because most Windows is pirateware anyway). the two biggest profit makers for MS are server/exchange licenses and Office sales – that is, the enterprise market which, as Dan noted, therefore gets more real attention and better products from MS than consumers do.

    this is why debates comparing Apple to MS about pricing stuff always go around in these circles. it really is apples to oranges, MS being the orange. the only head-to-head product matchup even kinda possible is Office vs. iWork. given that it can be installed on Macs without limit as noted above, iWork is much cheaper of course – but there is no iWork for Windows (would Apple dare?) so the competition is limited to the Mac owners exclusively.

  • John E

    By the way, it is never noted, but in the US at least MS sells its enterprise software to 501c3 nonprofits at a 90% discount. or else we’d probably all be using Macs …

  • Michael

    not to mention MS offers students their own version of Office at a steep discount (probably to compete more on cost with iWork… if it’s on sale)… it’s funny tho, that people would rather choose to use Office and Windows because it’s “familiar”, but what I don’t understand about those people is that they seemingly deal with all the annoyances that we Mac users don’t have to put up with, and yet they call our OS inferior simply b/c it’s not tied to low-cost PCs or they can’t tinker with the hardware (only geeks want to do that… and then they get tired of tinkering after a while. if they really want to tinker they should move on to Linux, but they contradict themselves by wanting to mod the system and unrealistically expect the vendor to support their efforts when things go wrong)… sorry for the outburst, just had to get that out.

    and yeah, apple is awesome with their licenses… i’ve never even heard of any other company doing away with license keys for their software. it’s just a hassle to the people who bought the software to enter it, and pirates will find a way around the license key if they’re determined enough anyway.

    as for my 2 cents on the cost issue, it really comes down to preference. would you value time and ease of use (some argue that it’s LESS user-friendly than windows, but we all know those people have only used windows before ;) ) vs. low-cost, no-frills pc that you have to uninstall the bundled crapware and install the software you want (i.e. firefox, photoshop, itunes, quicktime, divX, DiskKeeper, Registry Mechanic, antivirus, antispyware, etc) and spend hours installing all those things but pay $300 less and arguably have a computer that won’t retain its value as well as a Mac either. and then there’s the modders, which you just can’t convince b/c they love bargain hunting and are more tech savvy than 95% of the computer users out there, so they can solve problems (or put up with them more easily) in Windows than other users, and hate Macs b/c Apple designed them to be as efficient as possible (energy/spacewise), so they can’t overclock/change parts… and so they’ll forever live in Windows b/c that’s the only OS that allows them to tinker away w/o having to resort to command-line when things start to go awry.

  • T. Durden

    “people such as yourself”… You mean the non-OS-religiuos people using XP at work (Unix in my last jobs) and Mac at home? English isn’t my first language, but your comment sounded a bit like you have a chip on your shoulder vs non-worshippers. A bit non-constructive.

    But, aside from that, if Mac wants to take on business users like me, it’s a lot about Office and VBA. Too much money has been invested in various Exclel-based “tools” for a switch to some other Office package, unless it’s very much compatible. Nobody’s loving the Excel over here – it’s just the lingua franca for large parts of the corporates.

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  • tcid

    I had some problems with Windows 7 64 bit…
    I’ve found a fix there:

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  • http://wondersoftech.blogspot.com/ jmdunys

    I was working in San Francisco at the time everyone was freaking out about Y2K. Millions and millions were spent reading code, rewriting CBA’s to more modern architecture, etc.

    What amazes me today is to see businesses – some very big – using critical applications written in Excel or Access. (Excel?? Access??) Excel is full of calculation errors. I showed some of my clients for fun – to make them understand what was at stake.

    As with the Y2K time, I anticipate a coming MsOffice crisis, where many businesses will rush to review their precious code in order to migrate it to appropriate tools RDB. There will be work for many ;-)

    Funny to think that in 1991 I was writing Excel simple front end tools (running on Macs SE30) for powerful back end and middleware applications running on HP/UX (HP9000). Worked a treat already. Didn’t work quite as well on Windows 3.1, WFW, or NT.

    Anyway, a little long to say that people are slowly already getting the message. MsOffice is no longer an all-inall, king of the road kind of application. So many compatibilities between Office version document formats are getting many tired.

  • Wikinerd

    What about the Windows 7 Starter Edition? – for netbooks and developing markets, only runs 3 apps at a time

  • David Dennis

    Thanks to Dan for pointing out VirtualBox. I had no idea it existed and now I’m trying out Windows 7 in it. I think I’ll still buy VMWare because I like its handling of the mouse cursor better, but at least it lets me play around without putting up the cash.

    Since you’re supposed to install your copy of Vista Ultimate on only one computer for $230 odd I think the comparison between that and the $90 OEM version is still valid. It is good for people to know they have the alternative of the OEM.

    Vista’s editions always seemed a bit absurd. Microsoft was definitely guilty of excessive greed in their pricing, too. I think Apple’s pricing is enormously more sensible and they should have stuck with something similar, even for Ultimate.


  • John E

    well MS is its own worst enemy. their plan for Win 7 actually almost makes sense – a very cheap stripped down minimal version for the second/third world to compete with the pirates who rule there, a lite version for low spec’d PC’s like netbooks, and a standard version for regular consumer PC’s. on the enterprise side, a small business version and full business version with the works. oh, plus a minimal enterprise version for dumb workstations. if they explained it that way everyone would mostly get it.

    but then some marketing idiots – this has to be Balmer – decides to turn lite into “Starter” – start what? and standard into “Premium” – with no standard at all to compare to. and the third-world give-away as “Home Basic” – whose home for heaven’s sake? meanwhile on the business side, “Professional” actually means lite, the “Ultimate” really isn’t the ultimate one with all features, which is “Enterprise” instead. huh?

    i mean you couldn’t make this sh*t up. Overall, when you look at how MS names everything, all its programs and products and services, it’s a total f’ing mess. my god.

  • T. Durden

    Dare I point out that M$ is a company, and the idea is to make money? Cf airlines with their ticket systems, some car models with an identical but artificially limited engine compared to more expensive models, etc. Apple isn’t a charitable foundation either.

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  • anonymous500r

    I have used Windows XP with all the blobby taskbar and window edges switched off on my main PC (and occasionally on MacBook) for over 5 years now. I skipped Vista because I wasn’t ready to spend so much to gain so little new functionality. Windows 7 meanwhile feels faster than XP (because you never have to wait for programs to redraw) and it’s new taskbar (much more efficient at switching tasks than the Dock in OSX because you can choose a specific window instantly) and other touches (such as Ctrl and middle mousing to make icons bigger throughout the system) mean that’s a genuine, worthwhile upgrade. It starts in less than a minute, it resumes from sleep instantly and required zero configuration to support all of my hardware (whereas Linux doesn’t support my graphics card, sound card, network controller or IDE controller). Now it’s my primary development and Office work Operating System.

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