By Harry McCracken | 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:
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…