Windows 7: is it Vista SE or Windows 2010?

Windows 7 is gearing up for its public debut at next month’s Professional Developers Conference (PDC) be held in Los Angeles where Microsoft will distribute the first widely-available preview edition of the OS.

All attendees at the premier techfest (APC among them) will receive a 160GB USB hard drive containing a fresh-baked ‘pre-beta’ build from the Milestone 3 series beyond the current m3.6780 edition. The hand-out will be repeated at the annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) to be held in early November. PDC and WinHEC have both been crucial seeding platforms for Microsoft to distribute advance copies of previous Windows releases in varying pre-release stages.

Towards Beta 1

Legendary Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley reports there is currently no Milestone 4 on the Windows 7 roadmap so the next stop is Beta 1. This could conceivably queue up for broad release by December as Redmond’s Christmas present to its devoted fans.

Assuming Microsoft follows that up with a Beta 2 by the middle of 2009 Windows 7 could hit Release Candidate stage during the third quarter of the year – putting the OS on target to hit Microsoft’s goal of shipping Windows 7 before the end of 2009.

This doesn’t mean that boxes of Windows 7 will be lining the shelves next to must-have Christmas gifts such as the Steve Ballmer action figure. Simply sending the release-to-manufacture’ (RTM) build off to the DVD duplication houses and making it available for download by selected customers (as was done with the ‘business’ release of Windows Vista in November 2006 prior to the actual consumer launch in January 2007) would be sufficient for Microsoft to trumpet that Windows 7 shipped on time.

It’s also questionable that Windows 7 needs broad release by Christmas. Major OS advances like XP and Vista are the ones which benefit most from a pre-Christmas release because they’re so closely tied into the sales of new PCs. Windows 7 isn’t an OS that will send shoppers rushing to buy a new desktop or notebook.

Which raises the question of exactly what Windows 7 is and how Microsoft will frame it in relation to the Windows platform in general and of course Windows Vista in particular.

Vista SE…

With advances in the kernel networking system user interface desktop applications hardware and device support Windows 7 is certainly more than a mere Service Pack. It’s closer to the realm of a mid-life update in the shape of Windows 98 Second Edition or the R2 editions of Windows Server 2003 and 2008.

Should Windows 7 settle into that groove it presents Microsoft with two immediate challenges. First what to call the OS? If it’s not a significant advance from Vista (and all signs indicate that to be the case) then it would make sense to retain the Vista brand and promote Windows 7 as a ‘one step better’ upgrade to your Vista PC. Does this mean we’ll see something along the lines of Vista SE Vista 2.0 or Vista Plus?

Secondly will this Vista variant be a sufficient drawcard for current owners of Vista PCs? Microsoft can’t expect to set the cash registers ringing by tossing high-priced boxes onto the shelves. It may be smarter to price Windows 7 in line with its ‘upgrade’ status around $100-150 and perhaps even make some of the core improvements available as a free download while tempting users to pony up for the sweeter stuff.

… or Windows 2010?

The alternative of course is to draw a line in the sand and relegate the ‘Vista’ brand to Microsoft’s company timeline. A return to the simpler year-branding which Microsoft pioneered over a decade ago (and which it retains for most of its client and server software) would result in Windows 2010.

‘Twenty-ten’ is a catchy name to be sure. But such a move would imply a solid break from the past (which Microsoft may not be willing to entertain) and substantial step forward from Vista (which Windows 7 is not) leaving the company open to claims that Windows 2010 is more like ‘Windows 2007 and a bit’.

There’s also room for a high degree of dissatisfaction from customers who install Windows 2010 and end up staring at the desktop wondering exactly what has changed from Vista and was it worth the money?

So far all the signs are that Microsoft’s strategy with Windows 7 is to underpromise and overdeliver – the exact opposite of the Longhorn/Vista experience. If so Windows 7 may be forced to remain a Son of Vista rather than the Future of Windows.