Updating the Windows 7 release schedule

Microsoft has been doing an admirable job of suppressing leaks about its Windows 7 release plans. But someone in Redmond needs to do a better job of teaching its own employees when not to hit the Publish button on web pages. Based on a page that was accidentally published on Microsoft's TechNet site, I've updateds my predictions on when you'll be able to buy Windows 7 PC.

Microsoft has been doing an admirable job of suppressing leaks about its Windows 7 release plans. But someone in Redmond needs to do a better job of teaching its own employees when not to hit the Publish button on web pages. As my colleague Mary Jo Foley noted this morning, Emil Protalinski at Ars Technica posted screen shots of a page at Microsoft’s Technet Plus site offering details about the Windows 7 release candidate, including a May 2009 date when it will, presumably, be available for download by the public.

I visited the page myself and can confirm it’s real, although the URL suggests it was supposed to be hidden in a staging area of the TechNet Evaluation Center and not found by outsiders.

Based on the details in this preliminary page and some additional tidbits I’ve heard from my own sources, I can make some pretty good guesses about the current plans for Windows 7 (all, of course, subject to the vagaries of bug-catching and coding):

Release Candidate escrow: Before end of April? In all previous milestone releases, Microsoft has taken a few weeks for exhaustive testing (with some tweaks to the code) before declaring a build ready for general release.

Release Candidate available to public: May? The fact that the TechNet page is written, formatted, and ready for staging suggests that the development team has a high degree of confidence in its ability to deliver in the month of May. Of course, changing May to June on an HTML page isn’t exactly rocket science, so the date could slip. But placing your bets on the middle of May seems pretty safe.

Release to OEM partners: Late July or early August? Microsoft will almost certainly give its OEM partners a crack at the code first, because they are the ones with a pressing need to qualify drivers and utilities and build packages they can install on PCs. OEMs that do offshore manufacturing need a few extra weeks of lead time to get products built in Asia and shipped to markets in the U.S., Western Europe, and elsewhere. I suspect this won’t happen until July 1 at the very earliest (and probably later in July). That’s the clear conclusion from this text on the Microsoft web page:

You don’t need to rush to get Windows 7 RC. The RC release will be available at least through June 2009 and we’re not limiting the number of product keys, so you have plenty of time.

Any date on the schedule for this milestone is going to be written in pencil, not indelible ink. Steven Sinofsky’s team has made it abundantly clear that they are not going to rush to hit an arbitrary date. I’m sure there’s a target date, but there’s still room for it to slip into August.

Release to web: August 24? One big question is when Microsoft will release the final Windows 7 bits to subscribers at MSDN and TechNet Plus. The calculus gets a little complicated, because the time between release to MSDN/TechNet and widespread availability on BitTorrent will be measured in hours. I’m betting that subscribers get a head start of a few weeks, but not much more. I’ve picked the August 24 date because it’s a magic one for Microsoft. They'd love nothing better than to see comparisons to the successful Windows 95 launch, which was also on August 24.

Retail launch: Late September? Marketing professionals will tell you: “Never launch a new product before Labor Day.” If OEMs get code in July, they can have systems ready to deliver to customers in September, maybe even with a simultaneous retail launch. The back-to-school market is not an important target given the oddities of school schedules these days (many school districts in the U.S. start in early August now, and some operate year-round). But holiday sales are crucial, and a September release allows for a full-on marketing blitz for the fourth quarter.

Almost a year ago, I picked July 29, 2009 as the date when Windows 7 would be released to manufacturing. The readers of this site picked September 30, 2009 for the launch date. Based on the current code, both predictions look pretty good.

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