Posts Tagged ‘software’

Goodbye Windows 7

16 January 2020

Two days ago Microsoft officially ended its free support for Windows 7.

This means that computers connected directly to the internet may become vulnerable to criminal attempts to cripple or steal them.

Because of this, I have switched to Windows 10 on the computer I use the most. It is not the only solution, but I want to play it safe on my most important machine.

Windows 7

Windows 7 was an operating system that remained popular from the day it was introduced in 2009. It operated in a similar way to earlier versions, but was a complete overhaul of the system, and was presented in a very aesthetic and appealing way.

The story of Windows 7 started much earlier, however. Initially, Windows was developed as a graphical “shell” operating over MS-DOS, an operating system that dates back more or less to the start of personal computing. Personal computers were designed as stand-alone machines for home use. But they became so popular so fast that they became widely used in the business world.

The problem with that was that the business world was a networked world, where users had to share work and files with co-workers at the company, even sometimes in other buildings or distant locations. This had been accomplished, usually, with large “mainframe” machines running a business-strength operating system such as Unix. Unix had user accounts, login screens, passwords, multi-tasking capabilities and similar features that were needed in the business world. DOS couldn’t do these things, but as DOS machines grew in popularity, add-ons were created that allowed DOS machines to be used in a business environment.

Operating systems started going graphical in the 1980s. These were big hits with consumers and businesses. Apple also had a graphical operating system, but by creating a system that would run on less expensive generic hardware (the “IBM PC”) Microsoft won a huge share of the graphical OS market.

By the year 2000, DOS-based computing had reached as far as it needed to go. The basic concepts and features of Unix-like operating systems were reworked into products that would run on personal computers instead of mainframes. This was partially due to the pressure from Linux, an Open Source and freely distributed version of Unix that was designed to work on IBM PCs. Microsoft started with Windows NT (marketed as “New Technology” but originally named after a variety of other obscure technical developments) which became the lineage that Windows 7 is a part of. This lineage also includes, famously, Windows XP.

The Windows 7 family of operating systems kept the basic concept of “windows” developed so many years ago and added features that made the operating system a solid choice for business applications, particularly office work. The huge popularity of PCs with consumers has now died out, though many still see a notebook computer as essential. The average smart phone has much more computing power today than the PC of the mid-1990s had. This was mostly a matter of improvements in electronics technology. But for serious home users and in business, Windows 7 became immensely popular. At this late date, it is estimated that almost half of all computers in use worldwide still have Windows 7 on them. Over the course of its existence, Microsoft sold more than half a billion Windows 7 licenses.

Upgrading to Windows 10

On my machine, the upgrade to the newer Windows was very smooth. It took some time, but ran without incident, in the characteristically Microsoft style of using progress windows that tell you as little as possible about what is actually going on, using phrases such as “this may take a while.” My computer is not that old. It has two processor cores. It has USB 3.0. It has the newer UEFI form of BIOS. This latter point, in particular, I am sure helped with the upgrade.

UEFI

The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface allows for more modern electronics to be used on the computer’s main board (motherboard) and can even make the computer hardware appear like “smart” hardware on a network or similar communications system, allowing for certain kinds of remote access. Though to me this would seem to increase security risks, the industry seems to think it’s important.

When Microsoft mentions “modern” hardware, this is mostly what they are talking about. The older operating systems, as far as I know, cannot connect properly to the UEFI. So they found a way to essentially force everyone to upgrade their operating systems if they want to use modern hardware.

Alternatives to Windows

I have a version of Linux running on a small notebook that originally was running Windows 10. Certain features of Linux help it run better on machines with lower-end processors.

Beyond that, Microsoft and the Open Source community operate on significantly different philosophies of life. The Free Software movement takes this even a step further. But the basic difference is that companies like Microsoft have relatively restrictive licenses for their software products, keep most of their code a secret, and think of their end-users as “dumb” when it comes to computer systems. Open Source software on the other hand offers more lenient licenses (in some ways), requires that all source code be non-secret, and tends to think of end-users as “smart.” On top of that, the Free Software movement adds the assumption that if the source code is secret, then software companies can, and will, have things to hide about their software. The freedom of the computer user is compromised and bad control, including unwanted surveillance, can be foisted on users if they wish to use such “closed source” systems.

Though many of us see the dangers that a computer-dependent society could bring, the short-term benefits of using non-free software seem to be worth the risks. Global sanity, not revolution, is the answer to the constant problem of freedom on this planet.

Linux is not a bad alternative to Windows, though, and the newest versions from the big distributors like Ubuntu have UEFI compatibility. I ruled it out for my main machine because I had so many Windows applications I wanted to keep. But I would consider it for a new machine, or a portable. The best versions now operate very similar to Windows.

Companies with large numbers of Windows 7 machines can keep them protected if they put a good “firewall” or “proxy server” in between their internal computer network and the internet. The internet has become an extremely lawless place; internal company networks are usually much less so. I’m sure there are companies that will operate this way until their Windows 7 machines actually stop working and require replacement.