Windows Vista is only a year old this week, yet reported sightings of an early alpha version of the next release of Windows have been circulating on the Web for the past week, prompting assertions by some that Vista has been a market failure.
A handful of posters to several blogs and Windows enthusiast sites claim to have the early build of Windows 7, which they say is referred to as "Milestone 1" or M1, although the reports are all but impossible to verify. Some observers have called purported screen shots and videos of Windows 7 posted on the Web "fakes."
As usual, Microsoft is not talking – well, maybe a little.
All of the brouhaha did cause Microsoft officials this week to at least peg a ballpark ship date for Windows 7 as sometime in 2010.
"We are currently in the planning stages for Windows 7 and development is scoped to three years from Windows Vista Consumer GA [general availability]," a Microsoft spokesperson in an e-mailed statement. Given that Vista shipped a year ago, that's just two years away – but that's likely the earliest it will arrive.
The spokesperson added that is not a hard and fast date. "The specific release date will be determined once the company meets its quality bar for release," she said.
In fact, even when it has tried to be conservative, Microsoft has historically been overly aggressive about predicting Windows shipment dates, particularly in the early phases of development. Vista, for instance, was pushed back several times – and had capabilities stripped out of the originally promised feature set in order to make it out the door this time last year.
Company officials have said very little about Windows 7 to date, at least partly so as not to distract attention from Vista.
In fact, some critics and other observers have wondered aloud whether Vista is experiencing lackluster sales, and that is causing Microsoft to speed up delivery of Windows 7 – ostensibly so that users who decide to skip Vista and stay with Windows XP for a couple more years will have an upgrade path to the next major Microsoft system release.
Microsoft, however, has repeatedly claimed Vista is selling well, and that those sales were an important contributor to its last two record financial quarters.
"I don't see this [Windows 7 alpha version] as being in any way out of the norm, and no way can you use that to conclude that Vista's in trouble," Dwight Davis, vice president at researcher Ovum,
"Microsoft is between a rock and a hard place and it has to be that way, that they start development on a new version of Windows as soon as they finish the next one, given the complexity of modern operating systems," he added.
Davis and several other analysts said they have not yet been briefed by Microsoft regarding Windows 7. Some suggested that PC OEMs are the most likely partners that Microsoft will provide early code to so that they can test for code validation issues.
In addition, Microsoft is about to ship SP1 for Vista, which early reviews have said at least ameliorates some of the performance problems and stability issues that users have complained about since its launch.
Indeed, the arrival of Vista SP1 sometime this quarter is widely expected to kick off large-scale corporate deployments of Vista.
Among the changes expected in Windows 7 is a significantly smaller kernel, sometimes referred to as MinWin, for the operating system. The hope is that by moving many functions outside of the system's core or kernel, performance will be greatly improved.
Davis cautioned, however, about making early assumptions about what will or won't be in Windows 7 when it finally does ship, even if it's based on what officials said.
"A lot can happen in three years," Davis added.