Windows 7 Starts to Come Into Focus. Slowly.

By  |  Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 12:40 pm

Okay, enough about Windows ads. Let’s talk about a far more important topic: Windows itself. Windows 7–the working name for the next version–to be exact. According to no less an authority than Steve Ballmer, it’s supposed to ship in late 2009–but this is Microsoft time we’re talking, so let’s say early 2010.

Microsoft has had shockingly little to say about W7 so far–more about that in a moment–but details are starting to leak out. This blog, for instance, has a bunch of screen shots from what it says is an early version of the OS–Windows 7 M3 Build 6780, to be exact.

None of the stuff you can glimpse in the screens seems to represent any radical rethinking of the Windows interface. We see:

–A fancier calculator (woo hoo!);

–Office 2007′s Ribbon interface in WordPad and Paint (I’m a fan of the Ribbon, but I hope this isn’t among Seven’s major breakthroughs);

–According to the blogger, a possibly less intrusive version of User Access Control;

–My Documents is now Libraries;

–Control Panel now has System Tray settings (excellent idea–woulda been nice to have it a decade ago);

–a light version of Windows Media Player that appears when you play videos;

–Internet Explorer 8, of course;

–various other tweaks and features, most of which are hard to gauge in static screenshot form.

So what else do we know about W7? Not much. In February of 2007, Bill Gates told Newsweek’s Steve Levy that the next Windows would have tight integration with Windows Live (or something like it) so users’ settings could roam with them from Net-connected PC to Net-connected PC. He also said that speech and digital ink input would be important, and that more sophisticated graphics would be built into the OS.

Then, at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things D conference in May of this year, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer discussed Windows 7–briefly–with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. Ballmer said that they’d try to make the transition from Vista to 7 less “jarring” than the XP-to-Vista transition in terms of “ecosystem” (presumably referring to stuff like driver issues) and user interface. They seemed to say that W7 might not involve major changes to the Windows UI, which would be consistent with the screen shots in that blog post I just mentioned.

All Things D attendees got a demo of multi-touch within Seven–which is, to date, just about the only feature that Microsoft has discussed publicly in any detail whatsoever:

And oh yeah–Microsoft has an Engineering Windows 7 blog in which the company has been discussing the new OS for awhile now. It’s not exactly a quick read–not only is it aimed at software geeks, but it’s presented in very wide columns of very small type. And it’s clear that the blog’s goals do not include saying much at all about the OS’s features. Even so, little bits of information pop up, at least in the form of overarching goals. Such as:

–”For Windows 7, we have a dedicated team focused on startup performance…There are improved diagnostic experiences [relating to startup performance] in Windows 7 as well.”;

–”The ability to have choice and control what goes on in your PC is of paramount importance to us and you will see us continue to focus on these attributes with Windows 7“.

The Wikipedia article on Windows 7 gathers a few more tidbits on what Microsoft has said to date about W7, most of them pretty vague.

It’s striking to compare what we know so far about W7 to what was out there about Vista at the equivalent point before its release. Vista’s name had been released; we still don’t know what 7′s official moniker will be. Beta 1 arrived shortly thereafter, along with lots of details about the OS’s new features. (Scuttlebutt has it that Windows 7 beta 1 won’t show up until mid-December.)

Then again, among the many things we thought we knew about Windows Vista long before it shipped were things that turned out not to be true. Here’s an amazing transcript of a Bill Gates speech at Microsoft’s Professional Developer Conference in October 2003, more than three years before Vista development was wrapped off. Microsoft was not only showing off an early version of the Vista interface, it was touting the wonders of WinFS–the next-generation file system that was so wildly ambitious that it turned out not to make its way into Vista.

In that 2003 speech, Gates also declared that Vista would be the biggest update to Windows since Windows 95. In retrospect, hype like that turned out to hobble the Vista launch–Microsoft built expectations to such absurd heights that even a pretty-decent Windows upgrade would have disappointed. (Question: Would Vista have ended up with a better reputation and wider adoption if Microsoft had said it was a modest upgrade, not a historic one, and had never mentioned features it turned out it couldn’t implement?)

Windows chief Steve Sinofsky has said publicly that the Windows 7 clampdown is a reaction to lessons learned from the Vista rollout. After more than twenty years of a mostly-successful strategy of blabbing about new versions of Windows really early–here’s a Byte magazine article on Windows 1.0 that appeared around two years before the OS shipped–the company is finally experimenting with doing almost nothing to build expectations. That won’t last forever–expect some more formal discussion of W7 in late October and early November, when Microsoft holds its Professional Developers’ Conference and Windows Hardware Engineering Conference. By the time W7 betas start to come out, the company will have to start discussing W7 in detail. And it would surprise absolutely nobody if, at some point, some Microsoft exec says the new OS is the biggest upgrade since Windows 95.

For now, though, the quieter, humbler, more disciplined Microsoft is kind of refreshing…even though I’d love to know a lot more about Windows 7 right now, as both a Windows user and a journalist…

 
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12 Comments For This Post

  1. thehumanyawn Says:

    I think that there should have been less hype over Vista features, but the worst part of the Vista transition was the fact that companies wouldn’t get off their lazy asses and build drivers. It’s been almost two years since Vista came out, almost two years since I got my SanDisk flash drive, and no drivers have been released for U3 to work under Vista on my particular drive.

  2. TheAxMan Says:

    Interesting Article.

    I think there’s one aspect of managing expectations that you overlooked – that there’s an extremely vocal population of Microsoft haters that want to see the company fail at any cost, and won’t budge from their stance no matter what the company does.

    Common examples are some Apple fans (the type that are brainwashed by Daniel Eran Dilger of roughlydrafted.com or Guy Kawasaki), or the vast majority of slashdot members, or some (not all) open source evangelists like Matt Asay or RMS. Of course, this is a blanket statement and doesn’t apply to everyone who would fit into those brackets, but it is largely true.

    This is actually pretty relevant to your point about managing expectations. Look anywhere on the web for discussions regarding Windows 7 and you’ll see people (from above segments) making ridiculous statements about how Windows 7 needs to knock the ball out of the park, should not be just Vista SP2, etc. etc. etc. Ultimately, the ‘MS Haters’ are taking expectation management out of MS’s hands by setting the agenda themselves.

    Things have reached such a bad state that people don’t even bother to try MS software before criticizing it. And other believe this criticism as being true. For example the number of people you see complaining about Silverlight and refusing to install it.

    Bottom line – I think that (for whatever reason) a very large segment of the geek/nerd population is vehemently anti-MS, and there’s precious little MS can do to win them back. Whether it’s ad campaigns, browser add-ons, OS-releases, or what-have-you. Every move MS makes comes under immense (and negative) scrutiny no matter how well intentioned it might actually be.

  3. Bungle Says:

    have a listen to last weeks windows weekly podcast on leis network – twit.tv. Paul makes refereces to more that will be in 7

  4. John Haugeland Says:

    Microsoft has said a ton about windows7, including a lot of interesting tech stuff (a list which does not include the name changes of common folders.)

    Please don’t confuse “Microsoft hasn’t said much” with “As a reporter I don’t know what research is.” This is just embarrassing to watch.

  5. John Haugeland Says:

    Try searching, for example, for “MinWin”, which gives nearly a hundred fourty thousand results, many of which are more than a year old, and give detailed concrete data, such as how much RAM the new kernel needs.

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    John Haugeland: I’m well aware of MinWin and the fact that Microsoft has discussed it–I made no claim to be providing a comprehensive look at everything the company’s disclosed regarding Windows 7, and did mention some MinWin-related stuff in my post. And by any measure I can think of, it’s said less about W7 than it had about Vista at a comparable point in its development. Actually, Microsoft officials have said repeatedly that they’re not going to tell us as much this time around, which seems like ample evidence of a new, tighter-lipped policy.

    I’ve been covering Windows as a journalist since version 3.1; this is the most subdued that Microsoft has been with any major release in that time. And like I said, I like it in some ways.

  7. ITGeek Says:

    In response to the 1st comment, U3 runs without issue on my Vista Business x64 PC laptop. Just sayin…

  8. Steve Day Says:

    Although I hated Vista when it first came out and I love it now, I don’t see the use of making yet ANOTHER Windows OS that doesn’t solve the core issues of computing.
    Instead of focusing on adding useless features, they should focus on making their OS a heck of a lot more solid. For example, they should make programs more as modules that work with the core OS system files, so that the OS system files never ever get overwritten, or modified, or changed. They should focus on how programs run in memory, and how “end task” will work 100% of the time, and not just sometimes.
    I could go on and on…….but I know that these types of things make too much sense for anybody at Microshaft to actually think about. They’d rather wait until Windows 2023 to put these solid fixes/features into their OS, and for now, just stick to basic stupid crap that isn’t going to make anybody’s life any better.

    I say everybody boycott every new Windows OS until they start addressing what REALLY matters in an OS, and not just bells and whistles that too many of us are growing tired of.

  9. Leon Sutton Says:

    Steve Day: While I do agree with a majority of your statement, let’s be realistic for a moment. For the power user, uses as such are way more important than what we can do in a paint program with multiple fingers. We need the ability to safely manipulate our system, manage system resources, cut disk cost, etc. HOWEVER, to the general computing population — this includes research paper writers, game players, home money managers, etc. — these features aren’t important because they generally don’t know about them.

    The average user focuses on what’s convenient, not what makes their core system operate. This cast of individuals is more widely spread than the cast of power users, system administrators, Web developers, and so on. The multitasker cast is so minor that Microsoft — as a smart business — doesn’t strictly cater to them (myself included). They’re more concerned with the majority that relies on flashy technologies to make marketing judgments. If it ‘looks cool’, they’ll be more likely to snatch it up.

    The bottom line is that Microsoft is going to spend more time on progressing technologies — while they may boil down to simply looking good — that make the every-day user’s experience more fun and flashy. When they’ve settled themselves in this endeavor, they’ll refocus their attention on the core structure and operation of Windows. Until then — if the day ever comes — they’ll do what’s strategically correct when it comes to making the almighty dollar.

  10. KJ Says:

    After using Vista, I’m considering a MAC as my next computer, unless I can find the old software…

  11. tz Says:

    This is a comment on a comment . . . .
    AxMan, is there something wrong about resisiting (“hating” in your words) a monopoly that has used all sorts of underhanded if not criminal actions to become and maintain that monopoly?
    Additionally Microsoft still has a huge (probably at least 90%) market share, so your complaints seem reflexive and overdefensive.
    I guess recognizing reality is a form of brainwashing?

  12. Jack Says:

    Currently our customers downgrade from Vista to XP whan buying Dell laptops. Pitty! My personal XPS works well with Vista SP1, so some hopes for Win7.

    Jaak, http://shop.it.ee/

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