Microsoft Windows 7 – what's that all about eh? Seriously, we don't expect a mad rush among the legal sector to immediately upgrade from XP to Win7. For example, this is what the consultancy Ovum predicted earlier today… “Overall, the messaging of simplicity, choice and value seems to resonate, and it has the potential for Microsoft to rebuild some of the trust lost through Vista. Even with that legacy, expect enterprise uptake and migration programmes to start to appear during the first two quarters of 2010, with greater acceleration once budgets become released on the back of the greenshoots of recovery and when XP support is phased out by Microsoft’s channel partners.”

Nevertheless here are some pointers from Brian Zeve, the managing director of Microsoft's Professional Services Industry division, on what law firms need to know about Windows 7 today…

What is new with Windows 7?
With Windows 7, Microsoft is building on the substantial investments made in Windows Vista by:
•    Improving security, reliability and performance
•    Enhancing PC management with a focus on compatibility and battery life
•    Introducing compelling new experiences for users

Microsoft is on track to deliver a great experience that will enable law professionals to spend more time doing what they need to do each day: profitably serve their clients. Windows 7 will deliver an operating system that is more nimble and reliable, maximizes utilization of today’s powerful hardware, and easily connects with all the devices that law professionals rely on today.

What changes did Microsoft make in designing Windows 7?
Windows 7 reflects an evolved approach to engineering the operating system that learns from the lessons of Windows Vista and previous versions of the operating system. It weaves customer feedback more closely into the development process while enabling the delivery of innovative new features in a way that preserves compatibility and performance. Microsoft’s investments in Windows 7 are shaped by the evolving needs of end users and IT professionals in the enterprise. Users are becoming more computer-savvy, and expect more from the technology that they use at work. They expect to be able to work from home, from branch offices, and on-the-road-with the same level of productivity. As user needs have changed, the demands on IT professionals have increased. Today, IT professionals must provide greater capabilities and flexibility for users while continuing to minimize cost and security risks. Microsoft has designed Windows 7 to address these requirements.
 
What are the key Windows 7 advancements from Windows Vista?
Windows 7 introduces several advancements and fresh capabilities. We’ve bulleted the ones that will deliver solid benefits to legal professionals and the firm’s IT department. These include:
•     Enhances enterprise search capabilities so users can query a SharePoint site on a firm’s intranet right from Windows, as well as files on a user's PC.
•    Enables mobile workers to be productive anywhere by providing them with seamless, secure access to the firm’s corporate networks without the need to VPN.
•    Decreases the time that a law firm’s branch offices must spend waiting to download files across the network.
•    Helps to protect sensitive data on PCs and removable drives, with manageability to enforce encryption and backup of recovery keys so that data is accessible.
•    Limits the risk of malicious software by enabling IT to specify which software is allowed to run on each user's PC through centrally managed, but flexible, Group Policies.
•    Enables legal professionals to work the way that they want by organizing and accessing multiple documents and applications quicker and more easily than ever before.
•    Streamlines everyday tasks with its intuitive design providing immediate access to the applications and files that professionals frequently use through Jumplists.
•    Improves PC management including desktops, laptops and virtual environments with advanced image management and deployment tools that use less network bandwidth and reduce costs.
•    Takes handwriting recognition a giant step forward with greater accuracy and speed in pen input, ability to create personalized custom dictionaries for handwriting recognition, and the support of new languages.
 
Can you provide more details around the Windows 7 features that law firms will be able to utilize?
Building upon our previous response, the following presents a more detailed overview of five exciting new applications that will be available in Windows 7 for Enterprises:

1. Enterprise Search: Helps legal professionals to find the information that they need faster and easier.
Legal professionals need to access information on matters from a variety of sources in their daily tasks. With Windows Vista, Microsoft introduced advanced desktop search technology, enabling users to instantly find information on their computers. With Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and the Enterprise Search family of products, Microsoft delivered highly secure, manageable, server-based search. Windows 7 brings these experiences together and provides users with an improved and seamless search experience across local and networked corporate data directly within Windows Explorer. Users will benefit from these new functions:
•    Utilize a more intuitive approach to finding and organizing information with advancements to the Windows 7 user interface (UI) and recommendations based on recent searches.
•    Gain a new way of accessing documents, presentations, or any type of file that might be located in different folders, on different hard drives, or even on different computers—in a single view “Library.”
•    Search multiple locations such as electronic document repositories, SharePoint sites, and Web applications as easily as they search their desktops from a single interface with “Search Federation” or OpenSearch.
•    Make content on intranet portals more discoverable and accessible with Enterprise Search Scopes in Windows 7 simplifying access to the most appropriate, complete, authoritative data sources on the firm’s network.
 
2. DirectAccess:  Enhances productivity for mobile workers, improves security and manageability for IT
Working outside the office is about to become a lot simpler and secure for legal professionals. DirectAccess in Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 enhances the productivity of mobile workers by connecting them seamlessly and more securely to their corporate network any time they have Internet access—without the need to VPN. When IT enables DirectAccess, the whole corporate network file shares, intranet Web sites, and line-of-business applications can remain accessible wherever they have an Internet connection.

Additional key benefits that DirectAccess delivers include:
•   Empowers IT administrators to manage mobile computers by updating Group Policy settings and distributing software updates any time the mobile computer has Internet connectivity, even if the user is not logged on to a VPN or physically in the office. This flexibility gives the firm’s IT team the opportunity to service remote machines on a regular basis and ensures that even when mobile, attorneys can stay up-to-date with company policies.
•   Enhances security and access control by authenticating the computer and the user, and supports multifactor authentication, such as a smart card. IT administrators can configure which intranet resources specific attorneys and support staff can access using DirectAccess.
•   Keeps data safer as it travels through public networks by using IPv6-over-IPsec to encrypt communications transmitted across the Internet.
•   Reduces unnecessary traffic on the firm’s corporate network by sending only traffic destined for the network through the DirectAccess server (running Windows Server 2008 R2), or the administrator can choose to send all traffic through the corporate network.
 
3. BranchCache: Improves application responsiveness and increase branch office productivity
For law firms with several locations, BranchCache in Windows 7 can help increase network responsiveness of applications, providing users in remote offices an experience more like working in the head office. When accessing content stored on Windows Server 2008 R2, professionals working in a branch office won't need to wait as long to download files from headquarters. When IT enables BranchCache, a copy of data accessed from an intranet web site or a file server is cached locally within the branch office. When another professional on the same network requests the file, the user gets access to the content almost immediately as it is downloaded from the local cache rather than over a limited bandwidth connection back to headquarters.

Additional functions that BranchCache delivers include:
•    Ensures that content is served to users who have the right permissions and always checks to make sure it is delivering the latest version of the file.
•    Decreases bandwidth utilization between headquarters and the branch since BranchCache only caches read requests. It will never interfere with a user saving a file.
•    Works seamlessly with network security technologies, including SSL, SMB Signing, and IPsec to improve application performance even if the content is encrypted.
 
4. AppLocker: Helps to prevent unauthorized software from running for better control of user desktops
It’s what every law firm strives to avoid: the download of unauthorized software. It can cause a higher incidence of malware infections, generate more help desk calls and undermine efforts to standardize the firm’s desktops. With the vast number of applications available on the Web, IT professionals need sophisticated tools to ensure that the firm’s professional users work with only approved, licensed software. Windows 7 offers new application control policies with AppLocker, a flexible, easy-to-use mechanism that enables IT professionals to specify exactly what is allowed to run on user desktops.

Additional key benefits that AppLocker delivers include:
•    Restricts unauthorized software while allowing applications, installation programs, and scripts that users’ need so that IT professionals can realize the security, operational, and compliance benefits of application standardization.
•    Provides simple, rule-based structures for specifying which applications can run that are centrally managed using Group Policy. It introduces “publisher rules” that are based on an application's digital signature, making it possible to build strong rules that account for application updates.
•    Supports the creation and execution of correctly structured rules enabling IT professionals to safely deploy updates to allowed applications without having to build a new rule for each version update.
 
5. Virtual Desktop Infrastructure: Supports the deployment of virtual desktops more efficiently and with an improved user experience.
Delivering desktop functionality using virtual machines hosted on servers—a solution known as Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)—is an emerging model at law firms for desktop deployment. The benefit of this fast evolving technology is that it enables users to access their desktops remotely, thereby centralizing data, applications, and operating systems. Windows 7 delivers the latest enhancements for VDI to provide a richer user experience and easier management for IT.

Additional functions supported include:
•    Provides users with an experience that is closer to a local PC experience. It supports the Windows Aero interface, video viewing in Windows Media Player 11, and multiple-monitor configurations. New microphone support enables remote desktops running Windows 7 Enterprise to provide voice over IP (VoIP) and speech recognition functionality. And, the new Easy Print technology enables users to print to local printers without the need to install printer drivers on the server.
•    Provides common tools for physical and virtual images so that IT professionals can use the same Windows image management tools and processes to manage both native WIM-based system images and Windows 7-based virtual machine images (VHDs). This enables offline servicing of VHD files to add, remove and enumerate patches, language packs, drivers and other components of the operating system image.