Windows 7 is going into public beta, Microsoft head Steve Ballmer announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas late on Wednesday.
The first beta version of the successor to Windows Vista is immediately available as a downloadable disk image to MSDN, TechBeta and TechNet subscribers, while the general public will get to test drive the new operating system (OS) from Friday 9 January.
Windows 7 is expected to hit shelves towards the end of this year or the start of 2010, according to Microsoft's broad roadmap for operating system releases, which specifies a three-year gap between releases. The new OS first made an appearance in October, when a 'pre-beta' version was given to attendees of Microsoft's Professional Developer Conference (PDC) 2008.
Prior to Ballmer's Wednesday announcement, ZDNet UK talked to Microsoft's UK Windows chief, John Curran, in London. Curran, who called the beta release "feature-complete", said Windows 7 would appeal to business users and IT professionals because of its enhanced security and because the new OS does not require new hardware investments above those required by Vista.
"[The encryption feature] BitLocker was a key enhancement in Vista, but Windows 7 takes that a step further," Curran said. "BitLocker To Go is the new feature. If you take a traditional USB drive and then turn on BitLocker, you can either put in a password or lock [the USB drive] using a smartcard."
A USB drive encrypted using BitLocker To Go will be usable on a PC running Windows 7, Vista or XP — although an XP machine will only be able to read the drive after downloading software to allow this.
"Any hardware that runs Vista, you can have confidence it will run Windows 7 the same or better without a hardware upgrade," Curran said. He also claimed that, as the new OS is "fundamentally built on Vista", most Vista-compatible applications will also be compatible with Windows 7. The exceptions would be applications that are highly operating-system-specific, such as antivirus or file-management software.
Curran described Windows 7 as "designed and optimised for the mobile PC, whether it is a netbook or a laptop", and claimed the new OS would work even on current netbooks such as those using a1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU.
A key feature for business users, Curran said, would be DirectAccess. This feature, also included in Windows Server 2008 R2, lets mobile workers access their corporate networks without the need for a VPN. It also lets IT professionals remotely manage laptops, even if the machines are too small to allow for the incorporation of a smartcard reader.
Curran also said power-management enhancements in Windows 7 made the operating system suited to...
Windows 7 looks like Vista but is more suited to multitouch interaction with the PC
...mobile computing. "Windows 7 does some clever things in terms of power management," he said. "The screen automatically dims after 30 seconds [of disuse] but, if you flick the touchpad with your finger to keep [the PC] awake, it will wait longer until the next time it auto-dims. It will adjust its behaviour according to your needs."
It is not yet clear how many sleep modes will be included in Windows 7 — many saw the number in Vista as too great and too confusing — but one certain addition is that of "wake to wireless", adding to the current "wake to LAN" mode.
Another enhancement for business users, Curran said, would be found in Windows 7's search functionality. Whereas Vista's integrated search covers the client PC in question, the new "syndicated search" allows search across a corporate network or even across Sharepoint.
Curran also said that Windows 7 was smaller than Vista, in terms of the amount of space it takes up on the hard drive, and that performance had been "tweaked across the board".
In its appearance, Windows 7 closely resembles Vista. Two significant exceptions are the size of the buttons in the taskbar at the bottom of the screen — these are now larger so as to be more usable in the OS's built-in multitouch mode — and the lack of the sidebar. The sidebar in Vista contained the widgets, but in Windows 7 these mini-applications can be spread across the desktop in a similar way to widgets in the Android mobile operating system. As Android seems set to make its way into netbooks, it is likely that Google’s operating system will become a direct competitor to Windows 7 in that market segment.
The taskbar in Windows 7 also includes another visual enhancement over Vista, in that it will automatically display multiple tabs for a browser or multiple documents for applications such as Word.
Asked whether businesses should ignore Vista in favour of the upcoming Windows 7, Curran claimed that "the road to Windows 7 is through Vista".
"If you are running XP today, my best advice is to move to Vista today," Curran said. "Most businesses will wait for the first service pack for Windows 7 [before deploying it], but some will test Vista and [realise] they can get benefits [over XP] here today." Curran's words echoed those of Ballmer in October, when the Microsoft chief said he accepted that some companies would skip Vista, but recommended that they try Vista anyway due to the compatibility between Vista and Windows 7.
Curran refused to say whether Windows 7 would launch with the same level of marketing campaign that went into the release of Vista. He also said Microsoft had not yet decided on the minimum hardware specification for Windows 7, nor the number of versions in which it would be made available. He did, however, insist that Microsoft was "committed to an enterprise edition" of the operating system.