Last week, Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) gave a teeny, tiny bit of information about the successor to Windows Vista, currently named Windows 7. There wasn't a lot of real meaty data in its disclosures, but it said enough to reset any expectations you might have that Windows 7 would be a radical departure from Windows Vista.
The biggest clue about the necessarily modest goals of Windows 7 is the time frame. In the team blog, Chris Flores says it's "still on track to ship approximately three years after the general availability of Windows Vista." Since Vista became available in November 2006 for businesses and January 2007 for consumers, the company has a few months of leeway built into that goal. However, Vista has been a slow seller. Microsoft would be best served financially by having Windows 7 ready by the 2009 holiday season. That would mean Windows 7 needs to be wrapped up by September 2009 so that OEMs can test and preload systems for retail sale.
Here we are in June 2008, about 18 months from that date, and Microsoft hasn't shown its Windows 7 work to the public so far. We knew a lot more about Vista when it was 18 months from ship -- of course, that was because it slipped several times so we didn't know it was 18 months away at the time. If Microsoft really wants to meet that date while still providing a product that's faster and more compatible than Vista, it doesn't have a time to add major new features. Windows 7 will not be nearly as disruptive as Vista was to XP.
So what will be in Windows 7? We can expect to see a few new trimmings such as Internet Explorer 8.0, and probably a new version of Media Player. There will be an obligatory new default UI theme so that users will know they're not running XP or Vista. The most important changes will probably be tweaks to excise the bloat and performance hiccups that Vista introduced into the Windows foundation. Perhaps Microsoft will finally provide some tools that help users and developers determine which software and drivers are clogging the system; they got tantalizingly close to that with Vista's performance event logging, but it requires too much sleuthing to connect the dots and find the culprit.
The development of Vista was a major a nightmare for Microsoft; it started out with incredibly ambitious goals and ended up totally resetting those goals in the middle of the process. It cannot afford to let that happen again. The best way to guarantee a firm ship date is to set modest goals for Windows 7 and avoid risky features or major changes to the operating system. Vista may not be as far from that goal as it appears; Windows Server 2008 is built on the same foundation but is much faster. The success or failure of Windows 7 will depend on how well Microsoft does those tweaks.