With less than two years to go before it ships, Microsoft has started revealing new details about the next major release of Windows – or at least revealing what will not be new.
In a posting Tuesday on the Windows Vista Team Blog, Chris Flores, a director on the Windows Client communications team, said that the successor to Vista – codenamed "Windows 7" – will not be all that much different from its predecessor.
"The long-term architectural investments we introduced in Windows Vista and then refined for Windows Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008 will carry forward in Windows 7," Flores said.
Translation: the rumored new, smaller operating system kernel coming in Windows 7 is not new. Instead, it will be based on current code and will not involve a radical redesign of Windows 7 from Vista and Server 2008, as many pundits have speculated.
Additionally, Flores' statements indicated that – despite what chairman Bill Gates said recently – Windows 7 is set for an early 2010 delivery, not sooner.
Microsoft's strategy in talking about Windows 7 at this point constitutes a balancing act between trying not to hurt current sales of Vista, particularly with adoption by enterprises finally starting to ramp up, while using the slow strip tease of revealing details about the next major version a little at a time in order to build demand for the future system.
This becomes even more of a challenge when Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) confronts its promised two to three-year spacing of new Windows releases, a promise made after Vista took an agonizingly long six years to deliver after Windows XP shipped.
When Microsoft finally delivered Vista in January 2007, users immediately complained about the system's high hardware requirements, its slowness in comparison to XP, and the lack of Vista-compatible drivers for all sorts of hardware devices. Additionally, as in previous Windows releases, corporate customers have been waiting for Service Pack 1 before beginning deploying – and in some cases, even evaluating – Vista.
That reticence on the part of major customers has lead to calls by analysts and critics for Microsoft to commit to a major redesign of the operating system from Vista to Windows 7.
Among the changes many observers have been expecting until now is a new, slimmed down operating system kernel with much faster performance than Vista's kernel. An operating system's kernel is normally a small chunk of code that runs the most critical functions at the lowest levels of the system. It interfaces with the computer's hardware and with other resources and handles interactions between the system and applications.
A more svelte, fleeter kernel, or at least a mock up of it – dubbed MinWin – was demonstrated in a university setting last year but the company has talked little about it since. A new kernel is not in the cards this time around.
"Windows Vista established a very solid foundation … Windows Server 2008 was built on that foundation and Windows 7 will be as well …. Contrary to some speculation, Microsoft is not creating a new kernel for Windows 7," Flores said in his post.
Meanwhile, replacing Vista's kernel with a new one would be an entirely different story. Indeed, swapping a new kernel into Windows 7 after all the work Microsoft already did to develop Vista's kernel, would be cumbersome and time consuming at best, said one analyst.
"Despite the problems that Vista has had, going to an entirely new kernel would create more really significant problems," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, All of the extra work involved in retrofitting Windows 7 with a new kernel could cripple Microsoft's development efforts and ultimately undercut its plans for more frequent OS updates.
Flores, as well as another company spokesperson, also repeated earlier statements that, while Gates had implied that Windows 7 might arrive sometime in 2009, the system is still due for delivery approximately three years from Vista's commercial availability – that is, most likely in 2010.
"We are well into the development process of Windows 7, and we're happy to report that we're still on track to ship approximately three years after the general availability of Windows Vista," Flores added.
Of course, at some point, every company has to reveal its product plans in order to attract customers and keep them interested.
The question is, when is it appropriate to start talking about the next version? After all, Microsoft has had the albatross of "vaporware" hung around its neck repeatedly over the years for promising products and technologies well in advance of their availability.
"I'm okay with them being quiet [about what's coming in Windows 7] as long as when they do talk, they're highly accurate," Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at Directions on Microsoft,
With Vista, for instance, Microsoft initially was pressuring developers to create products that would use new file system features it promoted as WinFS. However, as time ground on and Vista got later and later, Microsoft cut WinFS from the product altogether, Cherry added.
Microsoft seems to be determined this time to avoid that pitfall as well as to keep its release cycle to the two to three-year timeframe company officials promised when Vista shipped.