The Windows 7 launch event is at fever pitch, but there's one aspect of the new OS that I believe is being glossed over by the mainstream media: hardware compatibility.
Windows 7 has been lauded for its extensive hardware compatibility. Most reviews have noted that Windows 7 - unlike Vista, which was plagued by a slew of buggy and incomplete drivers - works with the majority of hardware devices out of the box.
This is ostensibly due to Microsoft's expanded use of Windows Update. In fact, Windows 7 ships with fewer bundled device drivers than either Vista or XP precisely because Microsoft has shifted the burden of hardware support to the more current (in terms of revision levels for the individual drivers) Windows Update model.
But what happens when Windows Update fails? I ran into just such a scenario this past weekend as I tried to connect a recent-model HP DeskJet printer to my netbook running Windows 7 Ultimate. The OS first tried to install the printer using locally cached drivers, then detoured to the Windows Update site to see if it could find a match. Unfortunately, no compatible drivers were found in either location, and I was forced to waste valuable time scouring HP's website looking for what turned out to be an oversized installation package (40MB for a printer driver?) that took forever to install and added even more crapware to my already sluggish netbook.
Build your own rocket ship
I consider myself to be a fairly savvy user. I've worked with Windows in various forms since the early 1980s, beginning with version 1.03. Downloading and installing a cumbersome printer driver package isn't a big deal for me. But for novice users, you might as well ask them to build their own rocket ship. It's simply not an intuitive process. Worse still, the current method feels like a step backward from the time when Windows shipped with lots of drivers (albeit many of them quite dated), and where you could typically count on at least one legacy generic printer driver recognising and agreeing to work with your newfangled printer.
Will Windows 7's reliance on Windows Update prove to be its Achilles' heel? Probably not - at least in and of itself. However, when combined with Windows 7's other shortcomings - heavy hardware requirements, half-baked compatibility mechanisms (check your CPU for VT support), and a steep learning curve - Microsoft's decision to assume that every installation scenario will include ubiquitous connectivity to the web may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
I know I won't be taking Windows 7 with me when I travel in less developed areas of the world where connectivity is unreliable. The chance of running into a legacy printer or scanner - one that requires Windows 7 to make a trip to Windows Update, whereas an XP system might have simply supported the device out of the box - is something I can't afford to gamble on.
Here's hoping some clever person figures out how to grab the current contents of the Windows Update site and put it on a series of CD or DVD images. That would be a real lifesaver in a tight spot.