Mid-2009 is tipped as Windows 7's release date, but the big question is: will Microsoft abandon, or expand, its strategy of making umpteen versions of the same OS?
Speculation is running rampant over when Windows 7 will officially get released (mid-2009 is a popular current choice), how many versions will be released by Microsoft, and what the upgrade paths and system requirements will be. We review the evidence to date.
On the record, Microsoft has no official stance on when Windows 7 is due, beyond saying that it currently expects Vista's successor appear within three years of Vista itself — that is, by January 2010. Microsoft similarly says that the question of whether Windows 7 will have a comparable number of variants as Vista (which comes in Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise and Ultimate releases) is not yet finalised.
However, the very public discussions of Windows 7 at the recent Professional Developers Conference (PDC) and WinHEC event mean that there's a lot of contradictory evidence floating around. In the world of Microsoft, anything can happen, but here's our current take on how the release dates, editions and upgrade paths might pan out.
Hypothesis: Windows 7 will be on sale by the middle of 2009
The case for: In sessions aimed at PC manufacturers at WinHEC, Microsoft has been promoting the idea that Windows 7 could be ready for mid-year release. Meeting a June date would make it much easier for manufacturers to have machines on sale for Christmas with Windows 7 onboard, which would help sales all around.
Delays in Vista which pushed it to a January release date led to Microsoft developing the infamous 'Vista capable' label to help PC vendors meet their Christmas targets, which went completely pear-shaped when it turned out many machines labelled capable were anything but. An additional piece of evidence: the attendee notes for WinHEC, an annual event, include the comment "there is not another WinHEC planned before Windows 7 is released".
The case against: Microsoft isn't planning a widespread public beta for Windows 7 until early next year (despite the flood of torrent copies of Windows 7 which it is benignly tolerating ). Aiming for a mid-year date would mean that was the only major beta before the final release, which might not provide enough testing to produce a stable release. No Windows release in recent years has come out on schedule, so it would be surprising for one as crucial as Windows 7 to come out ahead of schedule. "We'll release it when it's ready" has long been the Microsoft mantra.
The mechanics of the Windows Logo program (which vendors sign up for to certify their machines as Windows-ready) also work against an early release. When Vista goes into public beta, Microsoft will release version 1.3 of its Windows Logo Kit software, which PC builders and hardware manufacturers use to test and certify equipment. The 1.3 release will include a large number of additional tests and will require complete reinstallation by vendors (they can't upgrade from the prior release).
On top of that, Microsoft plans to release another version of the WLK package at the same time that Windows 7 enters RTM (release to manufacturing), based on feedback on the 1.3 version, and mandate its use from then on. A mid-year release for Windows 7 would create a tight time frame for WLK, and might not make it possible for manufacturers to pre-certify their equipment for Christmas even if the operating system code base is ready. As one Microsoft executive admitted in a vendor discussion this week: "This is kind of fuzzy."
Hypothesis: Microsoft will ditch Home Basic and Ultimate when Windows 7 emerges
The case for: Ultimate has been something of a flop for Microsoft — despite the promise of additional download goodies (Vista Ultimate Extras) for buyers of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink version, just a handful have emerged. Home Basic was designed for use on low-spec machines that couldn't handle Vista's Aero graphics, but manufacturers in that market overwhelmingly preferred XP for that kind of task, to the point where Microsoft repeatedly had to extend its end-of-life date.
Microsoft's simplification of its logo program to just a single mark (rather than the Basic and Premium labels used with Vista) also suggests it's keen to minimise confusion by not having so many versions on sale. Vista will still need to be supported post Windows 7, so keeping the Vista packages available as (relatively) low-spec options might be simpler all round.
The case against: The install discs being given out at WinHEC and PDC label Windows 7 as an 'ultimate' release. However, that could just as easily be a means of assuring tech-savvy early adopters that they haven't got a cut-down version. Microsoft is keen to push sales of 64-bit Windows, so it might choose to keep a 64-bit Ultimate branding for the propeller-head crowd.
Hypothesis: Windows 7 will have higher system requirements than Vista
The case against: To date, Microsoft has heavily emphasised the ability of Windows 7 to run well on existing Vista hardware, and the importance of allowing existing systems to upgrade. (In contrast, upgrading from XP to Vista never worked that well.) In a blog posting, Vista executive Chris Flores confirmed that view: "One of our design goals for Windows 7 is that it will run on the recommended hardware we specified for Windows Vista and that the applications and devices that work with Windows Vista will be compatible with Windows 7."
The case for: In practice, pretty much all the Vista suggested requirements were way too low, especially when it came to memory. If you've got a working Vista system, chances are it has more than the recommended minimum settings anyway. Memory and hard drive space are also now so cheap that consumer resistance to higher specs is likely to be less than it was in 2007.
Microsoft is also pushing hard for vendors to have 64-bit drivers ready for Windows 7. A quarter of current Vista PC sales are with the 64-bit version, so clearly there's a large market segment that doesn't mind beefing up its hardware. And having taken the option of offering minimal hardware requirements last time and then getting slapped all around for sloppy performance, Microsoft might well prefer to play it safe this time around.
Hypothesis: Upgrading straight from XP to Windows 7 will be painful
The case for: Asked in a session this week how the upgrade path from Windows XP straight to Windows 7 would work, one executive bluntly replied "there won't be one" and suggested that Vista SP1 (or, by implication, a brand-new machine) would be the minimal entry point for anyone seeking to move to Windows 7. That sounds harsh, but it has a certain logic. If the gap between Vista and Windows 7 is at least three years, many businesses will have upgraded machines in the interim. In this environment, purchasing new XP licences now requires the purchase of a Vista Business licence which is then downgraded, so in theory those upgrades could be considered Vista to Windows 7 despite what's actually running.
The case against: It's widely documented that many businesses have held off deploying Vista, and if Windows 7 does make an early appearance, the temptation to resist Vista altogether and make the leap to 7 will be strong. Microsoft won't want to leave those customers in the lurch, so there's bound to be some support for an XP-to-7 path. However, Microsoft might be quite happy to leave the mechanics of individual migrations as lucrative service work rather than trying to totally automate the process.