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Here Comes Windows 7: A PDC 2008 Preview

With Microsofties already descending on Los Angeles in anticipation of next week's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2008, the wider computing-using public is eagerly awaiting news of Windows 7, Microsoft's next desktop OS. The software giant will ship a pre-beta version of the system to attendees, the first such release of Vista's successor. I'll be in Los Angeles for the next week covering the show and all of the Windows 7-related developments and you should bookmark my PDC 2008 page, which will include a live blog and ongoing updates during the show.

Here's what to expect.

Windows 7 is Windows Vista done right

Answering criticisms both real and imagined, Microsoft will seek to erase two years of bad news about its Windows Vista OS by releasing ... the next version of Windows Vista. Essentially Windows Vista Release 2 (R2), Windows 7 shares the exact same underpinnings as its predecessor and it will work largely in the same way. But Microsoft is tweaking Windows 7 is ways both large and small, and it hopes that the sum of those changes will be perceived as something new and different by its customers. It also hopes to overcome the PR battle it is facing with Apple, whose Switcher ads portray Windows--and Microsoft--in a bad light.

While Microsoft will never completely adopt Apple's model of providing style over substance and form over function, it will ensure that Windows 7 is prettier and even more malleable than its predecessor. I expect customizable user interface themes, for example, that will replace the drab light blue toolbars we've seen in early Windows 7 builds.

New interfaces, familiar tools

Microsoft announced years ago that the team responsible for the well-regarded "ribbon" user interface in Office 2007 would be working on the Windows 7 shell, leading to hand-wringing over a ribbon-enabled version of Windows Explorer. That's not happening, thankfully, but Microsoft is thoroughly overhauling Explorer in Windows 7, again, and is in fact using the ribbon, but only in a select number of Windows 7 applications, like WordPad and Paint.

Microsoft has also highlight the multi-touch capabilities of Windows 7, but I think a bigger deal will be the voice-enabled Activities functionality. Remember when Scottie tried to turn on that Mac in "Star Trek IV" by speaking into the mouse? He must have been a Windows 7 user.

It seems like every version of Windows includes arbitrary changes to menus, toolbars, and other UI elements, making moving from one Windows version to the next a study in multiple tiny pain points. Windows 7, alas will be no different in this regard. The evolution is ongoing.

Windows 7 will be smaller, lighter, faster than Windows Vista

As with the perceptions about the quality of Windows Vista, opinions of the performance of that system are negative for reasons both real and imagined. And with Windows 7, Microsoft will address both types of concerns. The imagined performance concerns will be addressed by removing key bundled applications--like Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Movie Maker, and so--and making them available, optionally, as free downloads from Windows Live, and by making the add/remove programs capabilities of the system more fine-grained so that users can remove more unwanted applications from the system. These changes won't actually improve the performance of Windows in any way whatsoever. But many users feel that Windows is bloated, and this will let them trim it down as they wish.

To address real-world performance issues (i.e. not those things that users imagine, but rather those things that are, in fact, slower on Windows Vista than they were in previous Windows versions), Microsoft is evolving the componentization of the system so that the Windows 7 runtime is even smaller than that of Windows Vista. As it has experienced on the server side, a smaller Windows is a faster and more secure (if less capable) Windows. Users will be able to enable functionality at the expense of performance and security, but it will be their option.

More specifically, Microsoft is working to dramatically decrease the boot time of the system and may implement an "Instant On" mode that allows you to perform certain functions as the machine comes out of sleep mode.

Raw benchmarks aside, Windows 7 will also be "faster" than Windows Vista because many things that hold up users will be streamlined. User Account Control (UAC) is an obvious example: With Windows 7, users will be able to adapt UAC to their needs so that it pops up less frequently and interrupts work less often.

Windows 7 is being developed in a completely new way

Previous to Windows Vista Service Pack 1 and Windows Server 2008, Microsoft maintained a central build trunk for its Windows products and would "fork" the tree into different development paths, or branches, to accommodate different releases. (This process is outlined in my article, Windows Server 2003: The Road To Gold, Part Two: Developing Windows.) As these Windows versions were completed, their code base would need to be merged back into the central build trunk, a complicated and error-prone process.

No more. Now, thanks to the componentization efforts it underwent during the development of Windows Vista, Microsoft maintains a single code base for all Windows versions (including Windows client, Server, and Home Server). Only final, shippable code is added to this codebase and Microsoft creates builds of Windows by aggregating only the exact components needed to create that version. This way, the Windows code base is always up to date, and the version built always includes whatever is most recent on that day.

Unfinished code, of course, is built and developed separately from the main code base and is added only when it passes high quality bars. With Windows 7, Microsoft could actually ship a final version of the OS anytime it wants--including today, incidentally--because the code that is in the main code base is of shippable quality. This means that Windows 7 could pop out of Redmond at any time over the next year or two. All that's holding it up is marketing considerations about the exact features Microsoft wants to include. Which brings us to...

Windows 7 will ship far sooner than we previously thought

Remember when Microsoft used to provide guidance about the delivery of Windows Vista and then routinely miss those dates over an embarrassing three-year span? This time around, the company has been very careful to repeat the same mantra about the Windows 7 ship date: "About three years after the general availability of Windows Vista." This puts the release on or about January 2010. However, expect Microsoft to ship Windows 7 well before that date. In fact, I expect it to ship by the end of summer 2009 at the latest, just in time to make a dramatic impact on the holiday 2009 selling season.

I can't wait for PDC. This quick overview is only the beginning, so please stay tuned.

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