Windows 7, Microsoft's next computer operating system (OS), is looking to win over skeptics disappointed with the much-hyped but often-maligned Windows Vista.

While it's not available until Oct. 22, the early buzz is uniformly positive -- "Microsoft's mojo is back" seems to be the general consensus -- but does this mean your business should upgrade to Windows 7 at launch, if at all?

First, a look at a few new features and improvements over past operating systems.

Benefits to upgrading

A key focus to Windows 7 is speed and compatibility. From faster start-up times to quicker program launches to overall performance, Windows 7 addresses many of the speed issues found lacking in its predecessor. This is true even for underpowered netbooks and older PCs. And when it comes to hardware and software compatibility, Windows 7 will work with more accessories and programs, which wasn't the case when Windows Vista debuted in early 2007.

"It's no secret Vista had a rough start -- the ecosystem just wasn't ready for it -- and as a result it frustrated many users," says Michael Silver, research vice president and analyst for client computing at Gartner, Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research and consulting group. "Windows 7 will address many of these concerns."

"In all fairness, though, Vista wasn't as bad as its reputation. Plus, Microsoft made many improvements to that OS over the past three years," adds Silver. "So Windows 7 will build on these Vista tweaks, and add better memory management, a more intuitive user interface, and many networking enhancements, too."

Windows 7's streamlined interface includes a cleaner desktop and task bar, which now lies along the bottom of the screen, and a preview of what's inside by simply hovering your mouse above the icons.

Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ontario, agrees with Silver. "The user interface is also light years ahead of Windows XP and Vista -- and finally gives Windows users something to brag about when they meet Mac users at parties."

For the sizable number of companies out there still running Windows XP, Windows 7 should offer much of what they like about XP, adds Levy. "This includes relatively snappy performance on older or trailing-edge hardware, excellent driver availability, and industry support -- plus improved security and desktop administration."

Levy says Windows 7's "touch" support will also be compelling to some users. "Windows 7 will have built-in support for multi-touch gestures, handwriting, and voice, for those computers built to support alternative input options."

Timing your upgrade

Benefits aside, Silver believes a small or mid-sized business must assess how old their computers are before considering an OS upgrade. "Generally, we don't recommend an organization upgrade all PCs at once to a new OS, spending money on something that might not bring you a discernable return of investment. But if the computers are relatively new you might already be eligible for a free Windows 7 upgrade." If not, says Silver, a company might want to wait until the PCs need replacing and "skipping Windows 7 won't be an option at that point." He predicts: "This version is going to be very popular."

Levy agrees that businesses using Windows XP will be pleased with Windows 7, but what about businesses currently running Vista? "Although Windows 7 can conceivably deliver faster performance on equivalent hardware, upgrading operating systems on existing desktops and laptops is not an insignificant undertaking," she says.

"Software has to be tested on a new operating system, as does all related hardware that the machine connects to on the corporate network" Levy adds. "Similarly, no matter whether you're running Vista, XP, or even something older like Windows 2000, you never want to be the first company on your block to adopt a new OS."

Levy says companies interested in upgrading might consider working with it in a test or pilot environment, "and then implement them on all PCs after Microsoft has had a chance to work through the inevitable set of bugs that will affect any new operating system."