A few months after the launch of Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 7, Gary Flood takes a look at how easy adoption is for its users.

Unless you've been so snowbound for the past few weeks you haven't even had TV access, by now you'll have probably heard of something called Windows 7. That's the operating system that, according to the wall-to-wall ad campaign, is something ‘you’, as a PC user, ‘created’.

You may well be put off by the hype, but the fact remains that with the October launch of its Windows 7 OS, Microsoft has made what many regard as a real leap forward, making up for the ground it lost with its January 2007 Vista release, now seen as in effect a failure.

Indeed, ‘you’ already have a lot to answer for. In early January, Director of Marketing for Microsoft's Entertainment and Device Division, Craig Belinson, was quoted in the US as claiming that Windows 7 is by far the fastest selling operating system in history - and that during the week of Windows 7's launch there was a 50 per cent hike in PC sales compared to the previous week.

Let's put that in some sort of context as a way to grasp why Windows 7 'matters'. IDC expects Windows 7 shipments to grow from just over 40 million in 2009 to 272 million in 2013. As a statistic on its own, that's not very impactful. How about this, then: last July the IT analyst group estimated there will be over 350,000 IT companies producing, selling or distributing products or services running on Windows 7 by the end of 2010, directly employing some three million IT professionals globally, while another four million will be employed at organisations using Microsoft wholly or partly.

In other words, by the end of this year, there will be seven million people earning their crust by using Windows 7 as part of their jobs - a figure which of course doesn't include all the consumers and home users on the planet who will also come to grips with it this year. In the business world alone that equals more than $320bn (£198bn) in products and services revolving around Windows 7, and in turn investing, planet-wide, nearly $115 billion (£71bn). Like they say, soon you'll be talking real money here.

In terms of the UK alone, again according to IDC (October 2009 figures this time), companies in the Microsoft ecosystem employ 241,000 people directly, while IT-using organisations employ another 281,000 IT professionals who work with Microsoft software or the products and services based on it.

According to the analyst group, that means nearly two fifths (38 per cent) of all current IT-related employment in 2009 is centred around Microsoft and 42 per cent of IT-related taxes in the UK are generated from this part of the industry. In other words, it reckons that £6bn will be spent in the UK in 2010 on all things to do with Microsoft. This is not a market anyone apart from the most zealous Open Source/Linux/MacOS user can afford to ignore - and certainly not anyone serious about providing training options for organisations.

While all this building market take-up of Windows 7 is great news for Microsoft and of course the IT industry (from PC and laptop makers to the 'ecosystem' of companies that sell software based on Microsoft technologies), what is the best way for the end user community to see the arrival of this latest and greatest piece of operating system product? After Vista, would it not be prudent to resist the hype and defer any upgrade or adoption - and thus training load - until the dust has settled a bit?
The surprising reality, however, is that Microsoft seems to have not just done a good job with Windows 7, there is genuine pent-up demand for it, and both users and IT professionals seem keen to get to grips with it. Businesses that tested Windows 7 before its full adoption also suggest that, in this cost-conscious age, another benefit of a Windows 7 move may be sensible reuse of existing investment as much as purchase of shiny new devices with it already installed.

'There are a few “gimmicky” things that you may or may not think improve productivity,' says David Hilland, Deputy Director of IT for Baker Tilly Management, a UK accountancy firm that was an early adopter. 'But what matters for us is that we are seeing real speed improvement in even older machines we've put it on. I'd say Windows 7 has definitely come up to expectations.’

This opinion is backed up by Jay Ferron, an IT professional and trainer with a US company called Interactive Security. '7 can definitely run very well on older machines, which allows me to recycle them to be used again and save cost,' he says.

While no-one should want to move from XP or Vista to Windows 7 simply because Microsoft 'told' them to or they liked the ads and thought the new screen looked cute, there are real technical improvements in 7, say independent commentators.

These include such features as DirectAccess, which gets rid of the need by remote workers to use things like VPNs, as it allows them to connect securely to the office and applications wherever they are; BranchCache, which saves network capacity by only downloading one set of big files to a location so local machines can access them there; and BitLocker, a probably long overdue way to encrypt and protect things like user data on a machine but also memory sticks and USBs.

Adopting Windows 7

So the market noise seems valid - there is 'something here' for IT users in Windows 7. And more good news: Microsoft has taken great pains to get together a very solid education and training story for the system, which offers not just a range of ways to be consumed, but seems to make sense for the large segment of the IT universe that is committed for the foreseeable future to doing computing the Microsoft 'way'.

At first glance, the leap from previous systems to 7 may not be that great. ‘There's still a Start button and you still launch Word the same way. The training needed at the entry level for an everyday user simply won't be that great,’ says Gary Duffield, Chief Learning Architect with training giant QA.

However, that doesn't mean there's no need for training at all. For Gary, the training path for an organisation from XP (or even Vista) to full Windows 7 adoption looks like this: 'As you go up in terms of need of use, the training need increases. Soon you'll want to know how to use AppLocker if you're a small business to increase security; if you're a knowledge worker you'll soon want to start using the secure remote access features. There's a lot in Windows 7 that is really good and I think there will be a big training pull as a result.'

It's important to note that Windows 7 education has to be applicable to not just the business user but the consumer - something Chris Pirie, General Manager of Worldwide Marketing and Sales, Microsoft Learning based at Microsoft HQ in Seattle, says was a definite factor in the pre-rollout plans. 'We've tried very hard to offer a lot of “friction-free” ways of consuming training around Windows 7 with lots of different form factors,' he says.

The Windows 7 Learning Portal (see box) features information about tools and resources to help people get up and running on Windows 7, such as Learning Snacks, Learning Plans, available certifications on Windows 7, classroom and online training, he explains.

This translates into a 15-minute piece of online content to three-hour e-learning modules to classroom and instructor-led courses at one of the company's 1,500 partner training companies globally - while seven out of the top 10 computer books being sold on Amazon are Windows 7 books, incidentally.

'Clearly, Windows 7 is going to be a big factor in IT careers one way or another,' Chris adds. 'So we see it as our job here to provide both the content and the guidance on how to use training to build the best career you can for yourself as an IT professional in the Microsoft ecosystem.'

So the verdict seems clear - Microsoft has gone a long way to rescue its reputation on the desktop, and the IT industry, from users to professionals, seems keen to trust it again as a result.

Seems ‘you’ did a good job.