Microsoft starts the whispers on Windows 7

With roughly 18 months until the code for the next-gen Windows is locked down in readiness for a launch in January 2010 Microsoft is slowly and cautiously beginning to spin out the details. Just don’t watch for any fireworks at least not this year.  Unlike the excessive hope extensive hype and eventually just too drawn-out campaign for Longhorn and Vista this looks to be a decidedly measured approach for Microsoft.

First to gingerly poke his head out of the foxhole is Windows 7 chief Steven Sinofsky who broke his self-imposed silence in a not-too-revealing interview with CNET’s Ina Fried. To her credit Ina kept hammering away but with different angles of attack.

In fact the interview is worth reading less for any details on the OS and more as an insight into just how tight and furiously ‘on message’ the ‘Softies can insist on being to the point where Sinofsky says he really doesn’t want to talk about the past (Vista) or even for that matter the future (Windows 7) as much as he wants to talk about ‘how we’re communicating with partners and customers and the ecosystem at large’. (Meaning we’re going to talk about how we’re talking not about what we’re talking about or what you and those partners and customers and ‘the ecosystem at large’ wants to talk about. Meaning err what exactly?).

You can read a full transcript of the interview here but there are really only two key take-outs. The first is that Sinofsky confirmed the target date for Windows 7 as being “about three years after the general availability of Windows Vista” which means January 2010 or thereabouts.

This is a refreshingly more realistic timetable than the one tipped by Bill Gates in April this year when he said “sometime in the next year or so we will have a new version (of Windows).” No-one really expected Windows 7 to ship by the middle of 2009 and we’d be worried if it that was the intention.

The second snippet is that Windows 7 will be built on a development of the Windows Server 2008 kernel which in turn was an evolution of Vista’s kernel. This is at odds with the many earlier reports of 7 running atop a radically stripped-back ‘MinWin‘ kernel. Fried put the ‘what happened to MinWin’ question to Sinofsky to be rewarded with the shortest answer of the entire interview: “Why don’t we stick at a higher level today because I think that I don’t want to really dive into the implementation details today.”

Something we do know about the inner workings of 7 is that it’s likely to have native support for running virtual hard disks specifically disk images in Microsoft’s own VHD format (which is also used in the Hyper-V hypervisor-based virtualisation technology of Windows Server 2008).

We tipped this in a roundup report on Windows 7 at the end of last year based on the notion that 7 would use virtual machines to run ‘legacy’ applications. Of course it won’t hurt that by 2010 the standard desktop powerplant is likely to be a quad-core engine front-loaded with a massive slab of Level 3 cache (this now appears in the architecture of both AMD’s Barcelona and Intel’s Nehalem) both of which are highly desirable when it comes to juggling VMs. Likewise hybrid disk drive systems bolstered by solid state drives could dramatically boost session speed especially during the ‘transition states’ of startup and shutdown which represent much of the VM overhead.

Now it’s come to light that Microsoft is hiring developers to ‘bring virtualisation into the mainstream in Windows 7’. Long Zheng’s istartedsomething blog sniffed out a job advert on Microsoft’s Web site recruiting for “the team responsible for creating mounting performing I/O on and dismounting VHDs (virtual hard disks) natively” and speaks of this as being  an “opportunity to work on a great Core OS team at the heart of Windows”. Most likely this is related to the fact that Microsoft will probably scrap legacy application support in Windows 7 to free it from some of the self-imposed shackles of Windows architecture from the last 20 years — if you want to run an old Windows app it will load in a virtual machine and run under a modified Vista codebase.

But back to the slowly-warming-up Windows 7 show. The next act could come tomorrow when Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer both front up at the Wall Street Journal’s influential D: All Things Digital Conference (aka D6). Or maybe not. With Microsoft treading softly on 7 it could be a long year for Windows fans weaned on the hyperactivity of Longhorn.