A few weeks before Microsoft unveiled Windows 7 at the 2008 Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, I gave a presentation about the company's next operating system for the Boston Area Windows Server Users Group. That presentation was the subject of the previous installment in this series, and with the benefit of hindsight, it may be useful to briefly look back on that presentation and see how its suppositions and predictions have held up over time.

The debate over whether Windows 7 is a major or minor release continues. It's now clear that Windows 7 is a step up from Windows Vista and not a major evolutionary leap, something I compare to the Windows 98 release of a decade ago. It's also equally clear that much of the design imperative behind Windows 7 is aimed at fixing, or at least tweaking, virtually everything in Windows Vista, from the visual fluff to the technical underpinnings. These facts suggest that Windows 7 should be viewed as a minor upgrade. A pleasant one, but not a big deal.

Microsoft disagrees. And its basic premise seems to be that the vast addition of new features in Windows 7 makes this a major release. It is the functionality, the visual changes, that make this a big deal. In that sense, Windows 7 is to Vista as Windows XP was to Windows 2000: They share architectural underpinnings but the latter products, respectively, offer important visual and functional differences.

So is Windows 7 more like Windows 98 or XP? That's a debate I and others will engage in for some time to come. But I will say that Windows 7 is a nice enough upgrade that it will appeal to two big audiences: The hundreds of millions of people who have already adopted Windows Vista, and the several hundred million people who have opted to stick with XP. That alone makes Windows 7 a hugely important product, especially for Microsoft.

Another heavily debated issue concerns when Microsoft will ship Windows 7. The company did not shed any light on the timing at PDC, but based on what we've seen in the Milestone 3 (M3) build that the company shipped at that show, and the several leaked post-M3 builds that have appeared since (see my screenshot galleries), Microsoft could ship this product relatively quickly. My note in the presentation about rumors suggesting a mid-2009 release can now be expanded on: I feel that Microsoft will finalize Windows 7 alongside Windows Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2) in April 2009 and will ship this update to customers by mid-2009 at the latest.

Given how much Microsoft did reveal at PDC, it's astonishing how much the company remained--and still remains--silent on. The MinWin kernel is indeed a part of Windows 7, though its inclusion apparently won't directly impact end users much, and Microsoft never discussed this technology at PDC. Parallel processing? Nothing. Virtualization support? It's in there, at least sort of, but Microsoft isn't saying whether Hyper-V-style virtualization technologies will be part of Windows 7.

M3

I've written a lot about the M3 build of Windows 7--also known as build 6801--elsewhere on this site. Please reference my five-part Windows 7 Preview and five-part Windows 7 Milestone 3 Screenshot Gallery for the most comprehensive examination of this release anywhere.

What's of more interest for an ongoing historical discussion of Windows 7 are the three individuals who have most directly impacted our understanding of Microsoft's next client operating system since M3 was issued. Some have done so in a very positive fashion. One, infamously, has not.

Rafael Rivera. When Microsoft shipped the M3 build to PDC 2008 attendees, it was forced to ship a version of the OS that does not include the most eagerly awaited new UI pieces, like the enhanced taskbar, Jump Lists, Aero Peek, and desktop slideshow. Or so we were told: One enterprising programmer, Rafael Rivera--my "Windows 7 Secrets" co-author and the blogger behind Within Windows--discovered that these features really were included in Windows 7 M3. So he created a free utility called Blue Badge that exposed the hidden M3 features for users around the world. This was an astonishing feat of engineering and a notable bit of goodwill. And it made Rafael the hero of the Windows world.

Randall Kennedy. On the other side of the coin, we have InfoWorld miscreant Randall Kennedy, a man who has made a mini-career out of bashing Windows. After being mistakenly invited to the Windows 7 reviewers workshop at PDC 2008 (he's not a reviewer) and then being uninvited, Randall tried to sneak in but was turned away at the door. When he discovered that the reviewers who did attend the workshop received loaner laptops on which to test Windows 7 on an ongoing basis, he begged Microsoft for one (both publicly and privately) but was again denied. Hypocritically, he then bashed Microsoft for trying to gain the favor of reviewers by loaning them hardware on which to test a pre-beta OS. You know, because reviewers are never loaned products for testing purposes and might be swayed by such a thing. He also proceeded to blast Windows 7 for being a warmed over version of Windows Vista. In a final bit of stupidity, his editor defended Kenney's writing as an attempt at humor. I suppose there's a fine line between farce and stupidity. So what's Kennedy's contribution to Windows 7? He proves that no matter how good this product is, there will always be people out there actively working to undermine anything Microsoft does. He's not trying to enlighten anyone. He's just a bad guy seeking to spread FUD for his own dark purposes.

Edward "Hero" Han. Microsoft showed off a number of Windows 7 post-M3 builds at WinHEC China in early December 2008, and one of the attendees, a Chinese hacker named Edward Han, managed to copy a VHD (virtual hard drive) image of build 6956 from a demo machine at the show to a USB key. The resulting VHD file can be used to run the build in Microsoft virtualization products like Virtual PC, but with a bunch of work, it was massaged into an ISO file that is used to install the build on any PC. Thanks to Han, who's now called "Hero Han" in China, a near-Beta quality version of Windows 7 has been leaked to the public. While Han's efforts aren't, shall we say, as easily defended as Rivera's, it's hard to complain about someone who has provided us with a much more recent build of Windows 7, especially when Microsoft itself has simply ignored external testers since M3. Information wants to be free. Microsoft could do itself a favor by dropping the Apple-like secrecy and opening up a bit. They could also come through on their promise to reviewers to seed us with more recent builds on a regular basis.

Heading to Beta

According to widespread rumors, Microsoft has recently or will soon ship a variant of Windows 7 build 7000 as the official Beta release. Note that this isn't referred to as "Beta 1." There will only be a single Beta release of this OS, followed by a single release candidate (RC), and then the final version. The Windows 7 Beta will ship publicly via Microsoft.com, so anyone can get it and check out Microsoft's next OS for themselves. My guess is that most people who do so will come away quite impressed for the most part.

Whenever it does happen, I will cover the Windows 7 Beta in the fashion that SuperSite readers have come to expect. That much, at least, is certain.