Sitting on the desk of Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft's senior vice president of the Windows and Windows Live Engineering Group, and the man most directly responsible for Windows development, is a document titled "Shipping Seven." I haven't seen it, and I don't have a copy of it. Sinofsky, of course, would like to keep it a secret: He's among the cagiest of Microsoft executives, and no particular fan of mine. Previously responsible for Microsoft's dominant Office group, Sinofsky has a can-do reputation, a man who can ship product on time in a very regimented fashion. After the multi-year delays that plagued Windows Vista, it's no wonder that he was picked to head Windows development going forward.

Given my inability to get my filthy little hands on "Shipping Seven," I present here, instead, this less partisan look at the development of Windows 7, as the next Windows version is now known. This document is based on what little public information is available at this time--late January 2008--and will be updated as more and more information becomes available as we move ahead. To date, Sinofsky and Microsoft has erected a wall of silence around 7, fearful of the leaks and transparent communication that ultimately doomed Vista as something that just didn't live up to the company's lofty promises. Microsoft's goal this time around is to under-promise and over-deliver. It's understandable. But information longs to be free.

Because we're discussing an ever-moving target, things will change. As 2008 progresses, I expect to see Windows 7 discussed in ever-increasing clarity. The first public clues should occur at the MIX '08 Conference, being held in early March 2008: There, Microsoft is expected to publicly reveal its plans for Internet Explorer (IE) 8, a key component of Windows 7. (For the most accurate portrayal of IE 8 so far, please see my blog post, Internet Explorer 8 preview, which includes a mockup of an internal design that I made using internal documentation.)

After that, Microsoft should unveil some low-level Windows 7 details at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2008, which has been rescheduled from its usual spring timing to "fall 2008," no doubt in order to better align the show with the company's Windows 7 schedule. At this show, Microsoft has publicly admitted that it will reveal its vision for Windows and the future of PC computing.

Finally, Microsoft will hold another Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in late October 2008. Windows fans know that PDC is often used as the kicking-off point for future versions of Windows, and this year's show will no doubt serve that purpose for Windows 7.

Beyond that, the future is, of course, murky. Rumor has it that Microsoft now plans to ship Windows 7 by late 2009, almost a year earlier than previous expected. I'm not sure what to make of that, but will offer the following observations. Microsoft had previously said that it would ship Windows 7 sometime in 2010, and of course, few expect the company to actually meet that date. If the company does somehow manage to ship 7 in late 2009, just three years after Vista, then it will be a relatively minor update with few major architectural changes. It will essentially be Vista Release 2 (R2), or roughly analogous to the change from Windows 2000 to XP. Frankly, such an outcome shouldn't be surprising given Sinofsky's history with Microsoft Office. But we'll have to wait and see: The one build of 7 that's allegedly making the rounds now offers little evidence of major change. But then that's how it's always worked.

Road to Gold: How Microsoft creates Windows

I've written a lot in the past about the development of various Windows versions, highlighting how the company brings together disparate technological pieces and creates, eventually, a cohesive whole that the public can test and then use. While this exact process has changed over time and varies from Windows version to Windows version, we can at least make some general observations about the process which apply to Windows 7.

Microsoft's Windows development scheduling calls for a variety of internal milestone, or "M," builds that will occur before a widespread external beta is begun. These builds, typically named M1, M2, M3, and so on, are internal in the sense that they are typically provided only to a limited group within Microsoft and to select partners who, in some way, are contributing code or feedback that is relevant to the low-level OS features that are changing at that phase of development. The first milestone release of any version of Windows typically occurs two or more years before the product is released to manufacturing (RTM), and these builds precede the beta and release candidate (RC) builds that are more commonly seen by the public. They also tend to not reflect the final product in major ways, as most of the changes you'll see at that point are low-level or of an experimental variety.

Consider the Longhorn milestone builds which preceded the final release of Vista by several years, a protracted schedule that Microsoft is keen to avoid for Windows 7. One of the key Longhorn alpha builds, build 3683, looked like Windows XP but featured several UI components that would eventually ship in the final version of Vista, including disk space "fuel gauges" in Explorer and integrated search. But most of the changes were occurring under the hood: Microsoft was experimenting with the WinFS storage engine (which ultimately was pulled from the product), the Avalon display engine (which shipped as Windows Presentation Foundation, or WPF), and a system-wide notifications scheme (which was also dropped). Later milestone builds previewed Vista's setup engine, various UI schemes, and the new Vista shell.

So how does this relate to Windows 7 and where we are now with Microsoft's next Windows?

A quick look--sort of--at the first Windows 7 milestone

This past week, others have published screenshots of what is quite clearly the first milestone build, M1, of Windows 7. Note that I do not have this product--Windows 7 build 6519--at this time, and I can only base these very early observations on what the shots reveal, which isn't much. Obviously, when and if I get my hands on this or future builds, I'll have more to say. But here's what we can make out from what appears to be a legitimate first leak of Windows 7.

It looks like Vista. No surprise here. As was the case with all previous Windows versions, the first milestone build of the next version looks like its predecessor. All the visual cues are the same: The Start orb, taskbar, Sidebar, desktop, and Explorer windows are all very much Vista. This doesn't mean that these things won't change in the future. It means that Microsoft is focusing on other low-level aspects of Windows 7--like MinWin--at this time.

It is Vista. For now. The product version is listed as 6.1, compared to Vista, which is version 6.0. This places the current Windows 7 build firmly in the Vista family, alongside Windows Server 2008. Don't read too much into this: All this really means is that the current Windows 7 build is using the most recent version of Vista kernel, otherwise known as the version in Windows Server 2008. Again, no surprise there: This can and will change in the future. The question is whether it changes to something like 6.2 or 6.5 or gets bumped up to 7.0, as suggested by the product's codename. My guess is that Windows 7 will indeed ship with version 7.0 of the Windows kernel.

Only minor end user changes can be seen. Again, no surprise here: There's a XPS Viewer EP application (functionality that is currently handled by Internet Explorer in Vista) and Windows PowerShell 1.0. A new tray icon "show hidden icons" pop-up windows can be seen; this apparently replaces the current system--where the tray area expands out when you click the button--and provides a link to the Notification Area | Customize portion of the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties window. There are minor changes to Control Panel: There are a few new entries--like Device Center and Recovery Center--and some are missing from Vista, including Add Hardware. And the DPI scaling options from Vista have apparently morphed into a more fine-grained control with a simpler UI and plain English explanations. And while these screenshots don't portray anything dramatic, others have said that build 6519 includes new Aero effects related to the taskbar and thumbnails.

A bit more about Windows 7

Mary Jo Foley recently reported that Microsoft will more closely tie Windows 7 to Windows Live. This makes sense to me, as Windows Live is, in many ways, a replacement for the company's previous strategy of tying much of its ancillary products directly into Windows. According to an internal memo cited by Foley, the Windows Live team will "deliver a seamless experience for customers who own a Windows PC. We have a unique opportunity to remove the seams between Windows, our applications, and our services. Windows Live Wave 3 will be designed so it feels like a natural extension of the Windows experience. We will make a bet on the Windows 7 platform and experience, and create the best experience when connected with Windows 7. We will work with the Windows 7 team and be a first and best developer of solutions on the Windows 7 platform. Our experiences will be designed so when they are connected to Windows 7 they seamlessly extend the Windows experience, and we will work to follow the Windows 7 style guidelines for applications."

Looking ahead

Right now, this early in the development of Windows 7, there's still so much to discover. I'm looking forward to discovering how Windows changes in the months and years ahead, and I'll be updating this article regularly going forward to reflect those changes as they are revealed. If you're like me, the only real problem with Windows Vista is that it's a known quantity, and after using the OS regularly for a long, long time, I have to admit that I'm actually beginning to yearn for something a little less stable, mature, and finished. I'm ready to start playing around with the next Windows. I suspect many of you are as well.