Well, let me ruin the surprise up front. Windows 7 is Windows Vista done right. If you're already a fan of Windows Vista, you'll love Windows 7 because it's a better rendition of that earlier OS. If you're a Vista hater, take heart: The makers of Windows 7 have reevaluated virtually everything about Vista and made changes small and large across the board. The result is a better Windows, no matter how you slice it.

I'd also like to address the most obvious question about Windows 7 before proceeding any further: Is Windows 7 a major or minor release? Microsoft emphatically claims that Windows 7 is indeed a major release and that we shouldn't be confused by the version number (6.1), the fact that the underlying core of the OS hasn't changed a whit since Windows Vista, and that the basic look and feel of the system is unchanged as well. Instead, they claim, the many usability changes they've implemented in Windows 7 prove that this new OS is indeed a major release.

My take on this is a bit more nuanced. Clearly, Windows 7 is to Windows Vista as was Windows XP to Windows 2000. And that's true on a number of levels. The version numbers point to little in the way of changes: Windows 7's 6.1 is comparable to XP's 5.1. In both cases, Windows 7, and XP, the system was essentially a highly tweaked version of its predecessor. And in both cases, the underlying core of the OS (the kernel plus support code) is largely unchanged from that of its predecessor. So from a technical standpoint, Windows 7 is a minor upgrade. From a usability standpoint, however, Windows 7--like XP--is a major upgrade, one that erases problems with its predecessor and brings with it a slew of new capabilities, most of which are quite welcome, and some of which are laugh out loud excellent. That's especially true for consumers, who are going to be quite pleased with what they see this time around.

So I'm going to give Microsoft a pass on this one. Windows 7, in many ways, is indeed a major Windows release. And if you're an XP holdout, this is the version you've been waiting for. It's a better Windows than Vista. And that's saying something, because despite all the Vista detractors and libelous Apple advertisements, Vista is actually quite good. But yes, Windows 7 is better.

The road to Windows 7

Microsoft has been unusually upfront about the problems it faces with Windows Vista and the need to eclipse those problems with a follow-up that is both demonstrably better than Vista and better perceived by the public. Its decision to keep the changes in Windows 7 a closely-held secret, until now, is debatable. But there is a certain maturity to the process Microsoft is using to unveil Windows 7, something akin to the vibe emanating from the server side of the fence.

"We learned a lot from Windows Vista," Microsoft corporate vice president Mike Nash said in a recent briefing. "Our approach in Windows 7 is defined by that." That approach is most prominently marked by Microsoft's renewed interest in feedback. Don't get me wrong, if Microsoft is anything it's a customer-driven company. But with Windows 7, it sent the troops out early and often to find out what it is about Windows Vista that was driving its customers and partner crazy. And it got an earful.

Fortunately, with Windows Vista, Microsoft did all of the deep architectural work it needed for its platform of the ensuing decade. So this time around, with Windows 7, the company could ensure that application and device compatibility would remain unchanged from Vista. Thus, customers, partners, and developers won't face the same tortuous incompatibilities that dogged them with Vista. "The security and reliability changes we implemented in Vista were very effective, but our partners wanted to build on those investments and not go through it again," Nash said. "We also heard the need for a more regular OS delivery cycle" [similar to what the Windows Server folks offer.]

As part of its reevaluation of how it delivers Windows to customers, Microsoft decided to strip out key bundled applications from the OS and deliver them separately to customers via Windows Live instead. This decision had nothing to do with making Windows "cleaner" or smaller. Instead, Microsoft recognized that certain Windows experiences need to ship more frequently than with OS updates. So now they're part of the Windows Live suite, which has been renamed to Windows Live Essentials. "Windows 7 is the core PC platform and Windows Live offers rich applications and online services that complement and 'light up' Windows," Nash noted.

Developing Windows 7

"We made a significant engineering transition transitioning from Windows Vista to Windows Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008, "Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft senior vice president Windows and Windows Live said. "But we still needed to rethink our engineering approach for Windows 7. With Vista, the ecosystem wasn't ready for launch, so we knew we had to deliver on the readiness of the ecosystem this time. And we're not going to underpromise and overdeliver. We're going to promise and deliver."

Sinofsky also said that with over a billion people using Windows every day, Microsoft has a huge challenge and responsibility to deliver on end to end solutions that actually work for a hugely diverse group of users. And these experiences also have to be discoverable. It's not enough for Windows to do something if users don't know that functionality exists. On that note, a lot of what's happening in Windows 7 is very much surface UI change, things that directly impact users but don't require massive internal architectural changes.

Sinofsky highlighted various personalization trends, that people really enjoy customizing their PCs to make them more personal. Almost 95 percent of Windows users change their desktop backgrounds, for example, with 40 percent changing it twice a month or more. Web photos are the most often used background, followed by personal photos stored on the PC.

Looking ahead to the finish line, Sinofksy declined to provide a schedule for Windows 7, though my sources tell me it could arrive as soon as mid-2009, or about a year before Microsoft's vague public pronouncements. He said that the build released at PDC was an M3, or "milestone 3" build of the product and that that would be followed by a beta release. Sometime in that timeframe, there will be a fairly public beta--"everyone will be able to sign up and get it," Sinofsky noted--and then the release candidate (RC) phase. "These will be very visible milestones," he said, "and each step informs the next. There's no point in a guessing game for the schedule. It's a promise and deliver schedule."

Next ... A look at the M3 build.