On May 5th, the release candidate of Microsoft's forthcoming operating system was made available for public testing. After the negative publicity that hounded the launch of its predecessor, Windows Vista, Microsoft is taking no chances and is keen to communicate that the release candidate is the culmination of a process of listening and learning.
Although built on the architecture of Vista, Windows 7 has won wide praise for being faster and more efficient than it predecessor. The new software has a smaller footprint, the code base has been tweaked and the memory management system has been optimised to offer considerably better performance, using the same specifications as Vista.
The consumer version offers an improved home media experience; like Vista, Windows 7 includes support for what Microsoft calls 'the digital home,' whereby the PC acts as a media centre – streaming data and content to a variety of home devices. The new version is now DLNA 1.5 standard certified, which means that it should be compatible with a far broader range of devices. In addition to this, home networking has been vastly simplified and can form a LAN in a matter of a few clicks.
A big change for Windows 7 is the inclusion of touch interface support; the reasoning for this is that it is a far more intuitive system which opens up home computing to the elderly and the very young. Microsoft is also working with a number of hardware manufacturers to bring touch devices to the mass market.
Gamers should be satisfied with the operating system's inclusion of Direct X 11, offering superior graphics support and interfacing.
On the business side, Microsoft is proud of Windows 7's instant and federated search functions, which allow a business user to search all shared folders as well as personal files to find documents or data far more quickly.
Direct Access allows seamless access from any outside device, not only allowing remote access for personnel, but also enabling IT administrators to manage devices without them having to have the machine in front of them, or even in the office.
For those businesses that still use legacy systems, XP mode has been included. This emulator system means that a company can upgrade to Windows 7 without having to update software and backup data beforehand, vastly reducing the cost and man-hours that are usually associated with such a move.
Despite a variety of improvements, Microsoft is keen to avoid the challenges that arose after the release of Vista, which was criticised for being released too early and carrying too much additional software. Microsoft Partner Group manager Simon Aldous and OEM marketing manager Laurence Painell explain what's happening and why…
What lessons were learnt from the launch of Windows Vista?
ALDOUS: The lessons we learnt from the Vista launch were that while it is important to have a great product – and we truly believe that Vista was a great product – we need to make sure that all the partners involved in the launch and support of the product have the tools necessary to be able to convincingly sell it. We learnt that we have to ensure that our partners across all parts of the channel have the sales skills, the licensing skills and also the capability to drive service revenue around deployment. But the biggest lesson was that we can't adopt a 'one size fits all' approach.
What is the purpose of the release candidate?
PAINELL: The idea is that we want to try and make sure that everybody has a chance to try out the product. We want to ensure that everybody has the chance to play with it, to ensure they are happy with it and that it works, before they decide to part with their hard-earned cash. It's really a reflection of us stepping back and listening, especially in the current economic climate, and ensuring that people are happy with the experiences that we are providing.
So who is it important to listen to?
PAINELL: Everyone. Everybody has different needs and different uses for their PC, which is why we made the RC available to the general public – it gives us an opportunity to hear from every user. The Windows 7 website states that quality is the number one priority.
How has this been achieved?
PAINELL: Well, the system has been undergoing a significant amount of automated testing prior to the release candidate. The RC itself has been issued earlier than usual. It's traditionally sent out to a select group of businesses and professionals, but now it's been made available to the end consumer too. We've got the feedback mechanisms in place and we've had an unprecedented response. We have been able to capture far more data than ever before.
What's the overall feedback?
PAINELL: Overall, people are saying that Windows 7 is a great quality product. Stability is vastly improved, along with compatibility. Although we intended XP mode for the business sector, it has been well received across the channel.
What changes have been made to the architecture and why?
PAINELL: XP had been around since 2002 and the world it was launched into was a very different place from an IT perspective. We needed to take into account all the modern threats and new ways that people try to expose PCs to attack, in order to provide the most secure platform that we could. And that's really what Windows Vista did.
The data has borne this out; we're seeing that 60 per cent of PCs are less likely to be infected with malware and there are less than half the critical vulnerabilities in Windows Vista that we saw in XP. However, those changes did result in a number of compatibility problems.
Most of those compatibility issues have been sorted out now, and on top of those, we've improved memory protocols, made a number of changes to the code base and the overall footprint of the software has been reduced. However, we were conscious not to make too many changes. Building on the Vista platform gives a greater degree of compatibility for the future, too.
How will Microsoft be supporting its partners with the official launch?
ALDOUS: We've been driving closer engagement with our regional partners over the past few months, where we've taken a far more practical approach going out. As Microsoft, and in partnership with our distributors, we've gone to the various regions and undertaken traditional road shows and roundtable type activities. That's a big part of how we're taking Windows 7 out to our partner communities.
We're ensuring that partners get marketing sales support materials. So we need to make sure that we've got the right collateral for them around these value propositions, that we're providing the right web banners, the right micro-sites, the right content that they can use on their own website and that they can drive out to their own customers, whether that is directly through us, or through our distribution partners.
How will Microsoft communicate the changes to the end consumer – those who didn't download the release client?
ALDOUS: The message of how Windows 7 is of value to a consumer will be different to the message that goes to a small business. What we need to do is very clearly pull out those value propositions and messages and articulate them to our channel partners, as well as driving the appropriate levels of training and readiness around those messages so that they can then have more effective conversations with their end customers.
PAINELL: There has been a significant investment in the consumer side of our business. Traditionally, we've nearly always focused on the business side of things. Of course we understood that we needed to get closer to our consumers, and so we started – through a number of channels and campaigns – to engage the consumer on a much more personal level.
Is it true that Windows 7 will be available as a free upgrade to Vista users, as has been rumoured?
PAINELL: This is something that we will be making future announcements about, so I'm afraid I can't comment. What I can say is that those Vista users who have software assurance will receive upgrades for free.
When is Windows 7 likely to be released?
PAINELL: When it's ready.
ALDOUS: In the meantime though, we're really excited about Windows 7 and what it means.