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Windows 7: If it were my idea

CNET's Dong Ngo muses on how Windows 7 should be.

Like previous versions of Windows, Windows 7 supports legacy software written for previous Windows releases, including Windows 95. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

I remember the first time I ran into Windows in 1995. It was in one of the few small computer shops in Hanoi, Vietnam, where you had to pay money to use the machines. Being a high school student with absolutely no money, I made friends with the owner and helped him clean up the place just so I could use the computers after-hours. And I spent many hours using them.

Compared with what I had known, namely MS DOS, Windows 95 was truly revolutionary. I loved the support for long file names and marveled at the Start menu, the Taskbar, and the Control Panel. Everything made so much sense then, as it still does to this day.

Now, after having used Windows 7 exclusively for about four months on my PCs and even on my Mac, I realized that the impression Windows 95 made on me was far stronger than that of Windows 7 (or any other Windows).

Don't get me wrong. This is not a Windows 7-bashing article. Windows 7 is undoubtedly the most advanced and probably the best Windows ever. However, after 14 years, I think it's time Windows offered something more original than just improving and thriving on the success of Windows 95.

This is why when I saw the "I am a PC and Windows 7 was my idea" ads, I just wanted to jump into panel to ask the presumptuous-looking guy, "What is your idea, dude, really? What's really new?" (And speaking of original, come on Microsoft! You can do better than imitating Apple's painfully old and goofy, "I am a Mac, I am a PC" ads!)

So, strictly from a user's point of view, here are my ideas for how Windows could be better.

Cut down on the compatibility
Compatibility is one of Windows' biggest strengths--so much so that it has become a weakness. If you have a Mac, Snow Leopard can hardly run any software designed for the OS 10.0, let alone OS 9. (This is the complete and horrible lack of compatibility, by the way, not a good thing). Windows 7, however, can run natively (or almost natively) most software applications designed for Windows 95. Prior to this article, I tried Norton Commander 95 and a few other old applications written for Windows 95 and they worked well on Windows 7, including Windows 7 64-bit.

You better just believe Windows 7 was this Asian dude's idea, else he looks like he can actually convince you the hard way. Microsoft

This backward-compatibility comes with a heavy price: performance. To support legacy software, the OS has to have layers of supports, emulation, and exceptions in its kernel. Take Windows 7 64-bit for example. To support 32-bit applications seamlessly (or almost seamlessly), it needs the WoW64 subsystem, which, depending on the hardware, adds another layer of support to the OS.

The support for legacy software does not only harm the OS, especially as you use it over time; it also limits the innovation and creativity from the software vendor side. Again, who needs to write 64-bit applications when 64-bit Windows can run 32-bit applications just fine (or not so fine but fine enough)? Why do you have to make it better when the old one supposedly work on the new OS?

Ten, even seven or five years ago, even the best developers couldn't write software that's guaranteed to work problem-free on new (future) hardware, so Windows 7 should just ditch them completely and only support new software (version) made specifically for it.

Forget about the editions and go 64-bit only
This is the most annoying thing about Windows starting with Windows Vista. There are just way too many editions. Windows 7 Home Premium Edition, for example, is basically just a stripped-down version of Windows 7 Ultimate. And as it's likely becoming the most popular edition, it's very sad that it doesn't have "Remote Desktop," a very useful feature that I personally use a lot.

This multiple-edition release also puts a lot of stress and confusions on users as well as vendors when it comes to getting to know an OS and supporting it. Think about it: you will likely use the Home Premium edition at home but the Professional edition at work. They are mostly the same, yet very different. It's like you have the same task but two different tools at two different places that are supposed to be the same tool.

Personally, I've seen a lot of people buying a new computer running the Home Premium edition (of Windows Vista) for their office and later finding that it can't be hooked to a centralized server. Such a pain and waste of time.

If it were my decision, there should be only two editions of Windows 7: Windows 7 32-bit and Windows 7 64-bit.

The 32-bit version will take care of all the messy legacy support while the 64-bit is a clean 64-bit-only OS. This is a good opportunity to make Windows (64-bit) a completely new and clean OS from the scratch. And yet, if you still absolutely need to run 32-bit applications in Windows 7 64-bit, there's the XP Mode. Currently, why do you need XP Mode when Windows 7 64-bit can run 32-bit apps out of the box?

Better control of drivers
I am not a fan of control freaks, but this is an area where Microsoft needs to exude much more quality control. Windows, believe it or not, is a very stable OS. Crashes, including the notorious Blue Screen of Death, are most of the time the result of bad drivers.

Drivers are software that make hardware components work with the OS and they play a crucial role in keeping the system stable. It took Microsoft until Windows Vista 64-bit to enforce a digital signature for drivers (so that the developer can be identified) but even now with Windows 7, you can still easily find and use drivers that are not signed.

I am not sure what exactly can be done, but there should be very strict guidelines to ensure that only well-tested and stable drivers can be released to the public.

A lot of built-in applications in Windows 7 now use the Ribbon interface instead of the traditional drop-down menus. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

Give me my traditional menu back
OK, I was kind of wrong to say Windows 7 doesn't offer anything original. It's the first Windows OS that enforces the new Ribbon interface, first introduced in Office 2007.

Unfortunately, this makes life harder for a lot of folks. The success of the Windows GUI relies on the fact that it has been the best one for mouse and keyboard-based user input. The Ribbon interface is, however, best used with a touch-screen user input method. I use WordPad and Paint applications a lot, and now all the keyboard shortcuts I've used for years no longer work in the new versions of these apps in Windows 7.

Windows 7 should give users the option to pick either of the interfaces, the regular drop-down menu or the new Ribbon, instead of forcing all of us to use the new and very mouse-dependent latter.

Add product de-activation
Starting with Windows XP, Microsoft has implemented software activation to fight piracy. I don't know how effective it is, as piracy still runs rampant in Asia last time I checked. What I do know is it has been pain for a lot of users and it is going be the same with Windows 7.

While testing Windows 7 for CNET Reviews, I had to call the Microsoft Activation center many times to reactivate the product. Almost each time I replaced one or two hardware components (RAM, hard drive, CPU, motherboard, and so on) Windows wanted to activate again, and unlike the initial activation, it needed to be activated via phone.

Now I wish there was a way to deactivate Windows on a machine so that you reactivate it again on another or after the same hardware has been replaced. That would significantly reduce the pain for savvy users who upgrade their hardware frequently.

So there go my ideas. They obviously missed the chance to be part of the 1 billion ideas that made up Windows 7 like the ads claim, but they likely could actually have made Windows 7 an even better operating system. How about you, what would your ideas be? Please share them in the comments section below.