Mary Jo Foley has made a career lately writing stories that say absolutely nothing about Windows 7 (witness this and this for example), which isn't her fault, obviously, since there's been no real news about the next Windows version But this sort of tells you how excited people are about Windows 7, too. With that in mind, I'll point you to a very lengthy interview with Steven ("that's Steven with a 'v,' Paul) Sinofsky, the man most directly responsible for the next version of Windows. My recommendation here is simple: Read it, and careful, Parse what he's saying and what he's not saying. This is the first time he's spoken at length about Windows 7 and you're going to want to pay attention to this.

Also, consider the following: When it comes to rolling out a version of Windows, Microsoft typically follows a very predictable path, and this suggests to me that the current "cone of silence" isn't really all that atypical though it may feel so after the maybe-too-open days of Jim Allchin. The first step is to get device developers on board. This usually happens in May, at WinHEC, but WinHEC this year has been delayed to November. (This puts the "sudden" Sinofsky interview in better perspective, I think.) Step two usually occurs at a PDC, where Microsoft engages with traditional software developers. This year's PDC is happening in October. Next, Microsoft ships an IT-oriented beta release (Beta 1 or 2). And then a consumer-oriented beta (Beta 2 or RC). And then it ships the final product.

Put in this light, and its projected 2010 release date, I'm not honestly sure there's been any huge information lock down on Windows 7. Whatever. The information deluge is about to begin. Ladies, and gentlemen, Steven Sinofsky:

On the pre-release silence about Windows 7:

We're always super anxious as engineers to talk about the work that we're doing. But on the other hand we really take seriously our responsibility of being part of the overall Windows and PC ecosystem. We want to make sure that when we do share information, that the information we share is accurate and reliable, and that we have in place the mechanisms for feedback such that the feedback is really taken seriously with respect to our plans. The reactions that we've had to some of the lessons learned in Windows Vista are really playing into our strategy of getting together a great plan for Windows 7, and working with all the partners in the ecosystem in a very deliberate way, such that the end result is a very positive experience for all of us.

In other words, under-promise and over-deliver instead of the reverse. I think we'll all welcome that.

On the release date:

The way that I think of planning a release of Windows is--and Windows 7 will be no exception--we look at it as it's a major undertaking, and we're going to produce a major release of the product. Then what we do is we work on the plans, we get feedback from different partners at different times in the plans, and really the disclosure is when we start to talk about the information that's actionable and exciting about the product. The timing of it depends a lot on what we wanted to achieve, and you've certainly heard us, and we've been very clear, and will continue to say that the next release of Windows, Windows 7, is about three years after the general availability of Windows Vista, and we're committed to that, and we've signed up publicly to do that.

Read: 2010 as previously reported. Oh, and Bill Gates was wrong. :)

On learning from the mistakes of Windows Vista:

I don't really want to dwell too much on the views of the past  ... If we're not accurate or the information we provide causes them to do one thing, and then we change our mind, that doesn't bring the ecosystem forward. A big set of challenges that we learned...is making sure that the information we provide legitimately reflects the promises that we're making to ourselves and to the team as a product.

Major or minor version?

We're very clear that drivers and software that work on Windows Vista are going to work really well on Windows 7; in fact, they'll work the same. We're going to not introduce additional compatibilities, particularly in the driver model. Windows Vista was about improving those things ... Memory management, networking, process management, all of the security hardening, all of those things will carry forth, and maintain the compatibility with applications that people expect

Despite his earlier assertion that Windows 7 would be "a major undertaking," this suggests that Windows 7 is, in fact, Windows Vista R2, an update to the Windows Vista code base and not a major new Windows version. From a technical perspective.

But then there's this:

There will be a lot of features in Windows 7. It's a major release. I talked about the kernel and driver compatibility and (application) compatibility, but there is a lot more for us to talk about.

We're working on a major release, and I think that each customer segment will have its own way of understanding what it means for them to be a significant release. And some of the things that we're going to do are going to make the release more applicable to a broader set of people, but it also might mean, oh, well, if you're not re-architecting the whole thing, then maybe it's not a major release. But we're actually going to bring forward the compatibility, and we're going to make sure that there's a lot of value for everybody who's a customer of Windows 7.

Obviously, he's talking from a functional standpoint. So is it a major release or a minor release? I point to the divide between Windows XP and 2000 as a similar point of confusion. In some ways, XP was a major upgrade to 2000 because it looked so different. But XP was really just Windows 2000 with a new UI and some compatibility code added. It's a gray area.

Or is it?

Windows Vista established a very solid foundation, a multiyear foundation, particularly on subsystems like graphics and audio and storage and things like that, and Windows 7--and then Windows Server 2008 built on that foundation, and Windows 7 will continue to build on that foundation as well.

So if Windows Vista is the foundation... Never mind. :)

Sinofsky gets very prickly when the interviewer tries to get him to be specific. Sinofsky has one goal with this interview and one goal only: Communicate how Microsoft is going to communicate about Windows 7. I have to be honest here: He doesn't communicate that well at all. He just refuses to answer specific questions.

We really did want to focus a little bit more on just talking about how we're communicating with partners and customers and the ecosystem at large.

There are many different models for disclosure that different companies work in, and I talked about the one that we're basing on the lessons that we learned from Windows Vista. But, of course, you could look at any of the other vendors in the marketplace, and see how they deal with disclosure, and come up with different models, and speculate about the pros and cons that they really see. I think that we're just focused--the No. 1 goal we're focused on is really the responsibility that we feel, and the respect that we have for all of our customers and partners, and making sure that what we share with them is really accurate and actionable, and that we are focused, like I keep saying, promise and deliver.

Let me just end with this. Look, we're working--the team is working super, super hard on this release of Windows, and you have to imagine we'd really be excited to start showing it to people. We want to show it, and we want people to get their hands on it, but we want to do that under the umbrella of being responsible members of the ecosystem, and being respectful of people's time and energy and the work that they'll put in to making Windows 7 great from the work that they can do.

So, why don't we say we're on target for the three years after general availability (of Vista), we're very excited about the release that we have, and we're very focused on promising and delivering.

Hey, that's what I just said. :)

But wait, there's more: And the Windows 7 information deluge begins, Part 2