Software giant Microsoft Corp. is hoping to erase the bad memories of its last major upgrade to the Windows operating system, Vista, with its release of Windows 7 this fall. The program has drawn several favorable initial reviews, but upgrading won’t be without its challenges for schools still using Windows XP, some early testers report.

XP users could constitute a majority of schools and districts, experts say, because compatibility problems between Vista and other software applications caused many schools to forgo Vista in favor of the older XP operating system on their recent hardware purchases.

Compatibility should be less of an issue with Windows 7, Microsoft promises, thanks in part to a built-in XP Mode. But whether schools will upgrade or switch to Windows 7 when it’s released in October remains to be seen–especially because XP users must complete a custom, or clean, install if they want to move to the new system.

According to beta testers and Microsoft’s web site, switching from XP to Windows 7 will require a “custom install,” because there are “no supported upgrade paths.” What this means for XP users is that everything on their hard disks must be wiped out to install Windows 7. The disk wipeout will clear all current files and folder organization, as well as all programs and settings.

To save all personal files, users will have to transfer these to an external hard disk first, then resave them after Windows 7 is installed. Users also will have to reinstall all programs and restore all software drivers for printers and other PC add-on hardware–a tedious process that could take hours and is fraught with potential pitfalls.

Also, older PCs (2006 and earlier) probably will not be able to run Windows 7, owing to older drivers and a lack of memory, hard disk space, or graphics power.

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has not provided upgrade paths to its latest OS for older software versions. When XP shipped in October 2001, Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 users were left behind. And when Vista shipped in January 2007, XP had multiple upgrade paths, but Windows 2000 and older operating systems did not.

According to Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst who follows Microsoft technologies, it might even be a smart move for Microsoft not to offer an upgrade path for XP.

In an interview with InfoWorld, Silver said it would be risky to offer anything but a custom install, because of all the “viruses, registry errors, and other performance-sapping flaws in the user’s Windows environment that would be carried to Windows 7.”

Silver’s comments echo a statement made by Mike Nash, Microsoft’s vice president of Windows product management, in making the business case for Vista nearly a year ago: “Bypassing Vista could have implications for security, support, and regulatory compliance and reduce flexibility in the face of changing business requirements.”

But Microsoft, which analysts say needs to offer a much smoother OS transition after Vista, is offering XP users helpful tools for installation.

For example, Microsoft plans to offer a free “Easy Transfer” program that will automate the process of moving personal files (not programs) to an external drive, and then restoring them to the computer after Windows 7 is installed.

Another accommodation Microsoft has made in Windows 7 is the XP Mode, which will allow users to run a virtual edition of XP from inside Windows 7.

“Windows XP Mode is specially designed for small and medium-sized businesses to help ease the migration process to Windows 7 by providing additional compatibility for their older productivity applications,” said Brandon LeBlanc, Microsoft’s in-house Windows blogger.

While Microsoft believes XP eventually will become obsolete, Nash said during a recent press event that manufacturers who “are using Windows XP on netbooks will have the ability to install Windows XP for one year … after Windows 7 general availability.”

PC makers, meanwhile, will be able to sell computers with Windows XP to customers who prefer that option until as late as April 2011, Microsoft said.

“Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate customers will have the option to downgrade to Windows XP Professional from PCs that ship within 18 months following the general availability of Windows 7 or until the release of a Windows 7 service pack, whichever is sooner, and if a service pack is developed,” a company spokeswoman said.

Worth the switch?

According to many reviewers of the new OS, Windows 7 is more than just a fix for Vista (even though both share the same basic platform). Among its new features are improved usability, windows-management tricks, and the much-touted Jump Lists–pop-up menus that can be summoned with a right mouse click on a taskbar icon.

[Click to see a video of Scott Thompson, academic solutions specialist at Microsoft, demonstrate the features of Windows 7.]

Kai Schmerer of ZDNet Germany recently compared all three systems–XP, Vista, and Windows 7–to create a series of detailed comparison charts. In his conclusion, Schmerer notes that Windows 7 “performs better than Vista and is also faster than XP, although XP remains more capable for devices with limited memory and outdated graphics.”

He goes on to liken using Windows 7 to “…releasing a car’s handbrake. This significant increase in performance has several causes: faster system startup and shutdown compared to XP and Vista; improved parallel processing; and faster loading of drivers and operating system components. Enterprise users will also appreciate the faster login to a domain. Microsoft has also thoroughly revised the SuperFetch feature, which results in quicker operational readiness after startup. Anyone migrating from Vista will notice a reduction in disk activity after startup, because SuperFetch spends less time loading applications into memory in Windows 7, which means less waiting for the system to be ready to use after launch.”

He continued: “In Windows 7, Microsoft has succeeded in providing an OS that’s likely to meet the performance requirements of consumers and business users alike. The early signs are that Windows 7 will enjoy a much better take-up than Vista. Of our three test platforms, only the low-end Intel Atom-based system is not really suitable for Windows 7. But even a single-core processor such as a 1.4GHz Core 2 Solo is sufficient to deliver smooth performance under Windows 7. High-end systems with quad-core processors also benefit from Windows 7, because many of the operating-system functions exploit the computing power of multi-core chips.”

What school IT folks are saying

With many schools still using XP, but Windows 7 promising so much, school technology chiefs appear to have mixed feelings about upgrading.

Christopher Dawson, technology director for the Athol-Royalston School District in northern Massachusetts and a prolific ed-tech blogger, believes that even with the addition of XP Mode, “for many schools the move to Windows 7 simply won’t happen, because budgets have dried up completely and neither hardware nor software refreshes are happening. Where it does happen, it’s not going to be because of virtualized XP.”

Dawson notes that not switching would be a shame, however, because “it’s time to move on to a more secure and stable OS with both modern inner workings as well as a modern interface. Whether that’s some flavor of [Linux] or Windows 7, educational institutions need to leave XP behind.”

In an interview with eSchool News, Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas, said his district is “actively investigating many options with regard to our desktop OS, and … Windows 7 is one of those options,” despite the challenges of upgrading from XP.

According to Hirsch, more than 95 percent of Plano’s 34,000 PCs use the Windows XP operating system. The other 5 percent use Mac OS X or Linux. Because Hirsch’s district supports a large enterprise, however, “upgrading to Windows 7 would be a straightforward process,” he said. “We create an image on a master computer and then duplicate that image to the 34,000 PCs. In this case, straightforward does not mean quick, simply that we perform that process of re-imaging each year, so the process is already established.”

Hirsch believes districts without a formal imaging process in place likely will purchase computers with Windows 7 much as they purchased Vista computers. Districts that aren’t planning new hardware purchases probably will not upgrade right away, he said.

Another factor for schools might be the release date of Windows 7, which is slated for the end of October. That’s good for the Christmas market but bad for schools, because October is well past when most schools make their PC purchasing decisions for the new school year.

“The most interesting segment to watch will be the netbook group,” said Hirsch. “Given that you can install a Mac OS already on Intel Atom-based netbooks, certainly Apple will enter this fray soon; and with Google’s Chrome OS looming, along with established Ubuntu and related Linux distributions, the netbook segment could be quite a mixture [of available operating systems].”

Links:

Microsoft’s Windows 7

Microsoft’s XP Mode

Christopher Dawson’s blog

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Empowering Education Through Technology resource center. Integrating technology into the classroom can be a challenge without the right guidance. Go to: Empowering Education Through Technology


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