Let’s begin by revisiting August of 1995.
When Windows 95 was introduced, Microsoft set the stage for multitasked computing as we know it. Sure, some will argue its design principles were not unique to Redmond, but Microsoft’s initiative helped to influence the standardization of the modern window manager. Together, with the help of the Windows NT codebase Microsoft would later adopt, the personal computing industry was pushed into making faster hardware capable of utilizing these new design conventions that emphasized multitasked computing so heavily. This would eventually pave the way for the standardization of multi-threaded CPUs, like the one you’re probably using to view this webpage.
Microsoft would later transition away from the 9x kernel used in 95 to Windows NT, which was and continues to be widely accepted thanks to the popularity of Windows 2000 and XP. Windows XP, while different under the hood from its predecessors having switched to the more modern NT, still enjoyed the same UX as its forbearers. It took what worked and extended upon that framework, sporting a comprehensive theme engine, improved font rendering, 32-bit icons, and added NTFS to name a few things. Microsoft would eventually release a x64 edition of XP based on the 5.2 kernel shared by Windows Server 2003, allowing more than 3.5 GB of RAM to be addressed among other fixes.
Microsoft set out on another ambitious project, creating the next generation of Windows: known internally as Project Longhorn.
I argue Longhorn, later branded Vista, would go on to be the most significant step in the evolution of Windows since the first release of Windows NT. I hold the opinion that innovation slowed with all subsequent releases of Windows thereafter. I shall make my case as to why I feel that innovation to the Windows kernel and UX has plateaued in its entirety beyond Windows 8.x.
First, let’s evaluate some of the changes introduced since XP.
Compared with Windows XP, there are numerous features new to Windows Vista, almost all of which are shared by its successors, including a revamped File Explorer with great emphasis on system-wide search. This extends to other areas of the system, most notably the Start Menu. Moreover, Vista introduced the Desktop Window Manager, which not only enjoys many new graphical effects and features over its predecessors, but removes observable screen-tearing on supported GPUs. This would go on to be the first version of Windows that allowed the user to freely change the display language without having to reinstall the OS. DirectX 10 was also introduced staring with Vista, later updated to DirectX 11 after SP2’s subsequent Platform Update. Windows 7 would expand upon this, ultimately receiving partial DirectX 12 implementation near the end of its support cycle. You can read more about the changes in depth here.
I get it, everyone told you Vista is bad.
“Vista bricked my hard drive, Vista was too slow, Vista set fire to my mailbox!”
Regardless, I am convinced that Vista after Service Pack 1 laid the foundation for modern Windows. So much so, that Windows 7, in all its success, was essentially just a refit of Vista released once hardware grew more accommodating for the next generation of Windows. For context, Vista/7 does not work particularly well with only 1 GB of RAM. This was the unfortunate reality for many computer users at the time, as 1 GB of RAM was quite adequate throughout XP’s rein. Coupled with the drastic changes made to the driver model, particularly with respect to WDDM, manufacturers and software vendors had a lot of tweaking to do in preparation for Vista’s successor.
Not all was lost, though.
Windows 7 hit store shelves on 22 October 2009, just months after the debut of Vista’s second Service Pack on 22 May that same year. Manufacturers by this point in time had finally caught up with the changes introduced with Vista, and as such driver and software compatibility had reached a state of relative maturity. Since Vista SP2 and the then new Windows 7 shared a very similar feature level, the duo prospered together into the 2010s. Vista remains to live on in the dark, though, overshadowed by Windows 7 having released the very same year Vista received its second and final Service Pack. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the stigma that Vista would inflict bodily harm to your person never did wane as few gave 7’s turbulent predecessor a second thought.
The leap from Vista to Windows 11 is rather underwhelming when compared to the transition from the likes of XP to Vista (NT 5.x – NT 6.x). Take a moment to postulate that Vista and 11 share more in common than Vista’s immediate predecessor, XP, despite releasing some 15 years apart. The recommended system requirements needed to adequately run either OS are similar as well, provided you patch out the TPM checks from your installation media. This can be accomplished by burning a bootable USB with a tool like this one.
Life on Vista is fairly accommodating as of writing, thanks to the efforts of the Extended Kernel project. Opting for Windows 7 or 8.x will net even more options for newer hardware, particularly 8.1 since it provides improved UEFI implementation, support for USB 3.1 standards, as well as native M.2 compatibility.
Regardless, most of the modern amenities you’d expect from a current OS exist in Vista. This, in my view was Microsoft’s turning point: their last major contribution to the computing industry in a race for innovation and creativity amid a rapidly changing technological landscape. Once a company plateaus and stops innovating, they start convuluting. Such is the case with Windows 10 onwards, with some of that quirkiness having been felt as early as Windows 8.