Microsoft made the first release candidate of Windows 7 available for free download on Thursday. In an unprecedented move for the company, the software will run on a user's PC for more than a year.
Windows 7 RC1 can be downloaded now by MSDN, TechBeta and TechNet subscribers, and the general public will be able to download it on 5 May. There is no limit to how many copies can be downloaded. The software will run until 1 June, 2010, in what a Microsoft marketing manager described to ZDNet UK as a "try before you buy" scenario.
"There is no cap on the amount of downloads [of Windows 7 RC1]," Laurence Painell said in a prebriefing session on Wednesday. "However, we only recommend that people with a reasonable amount of IT knowledge use it."
Windows 7, the successor to Vista, brings new features such as multitouch interaction, a redesigned taskbar at the bottom of the desktop and an integrated search feature that allows the user to search across the client PC and corporate network at once. Power management has also been improved, as Microsoft has been keen to focus Windows 7 on portable computing.
When Windows 7 went into beta in January, an executive from the company told ZDNet UK that the beta version was "feature complete". However, Painell revealed on Wednesday that two features present in the beta — a built-in Bluetooth audio driver and the ability to have a guest account — have been dropped from the release candidate.
Painell could not explain why Windows 7 would not automatically include a Bluetooth audio driver. He suggested, however, that the omission of the guest-account feature was because Microsoft "has not seen a huge amount of uptake of it".
The omission of another feature — the ability to have thumbdrives or any media other than optical disks autorun — was announced by Microsoft on Tuesday. The company said this decision had been taken in the light of recent malware, such as the Conficker virus, that uses USB memory sticks as an attack vector.
Asked how this would affect, by way of example, Linux distributions that are designed to run from flash drives, Painell said that users "could still run that distribution from an optical disk".
The RC1 also has new features not found in the beta version, such as the ability to stream media between PCs in a Slingbox-like fashion. Another addition — that of an XP virtual machine built into the Professional and Ultimate version of Windows 7 — was announced by Microsoft on Friday.
Painell said an XP application running on Windows 7 would "look like an XP application, but you won't need a virtual PC interface running around it". He added that those applications would be able to share the clipboard and documents folder with their Windows 7 host.
It is not clear how Windows 7's XP virtual machines will handle the issue of driver compatibility. Microsoft has also conceded that there will not be 100 percent compatibility between all XP applications and Windows 7's virtual machines, and has asked software vendors and customers to test such applications in the VMs, providing feedback to Microsoft before the operating system's final release.
Painell told ZDNet UK that small businesses — the target audience for the XP virtual machines — would have to install applications to each virtual machine, without the ability to centrally install and control such applications from the server level.
Enterprise customers will be encouraged to use Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) to centrally administer their XP virtual machines. However, Microsoft said on Wednesday that the updated version of Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), which will come out within three months of Windows 7's general release, will include only a beta version of MED-V.
Asked why Microsoft was introducing XP virtual machines on business versions of Windows 7, Painell said the VMs were designed to bridge compatibility issues with software. He said this may be useful...
...where the software vendor had gone out of business, the software was bespoke, or the customer had "not purchased the most recent version" of the software.
Microsoft expects that 90 percent or more of applications and hardware that function on Vista will work on Windows 7, Painell said.
The cheapest version of Windows 7 will be the Starter Edition, which Painell said was "an entry-level edition for netbooks only". He added, however, that "any version of Windows 7 will work on a netbook with good experiences".
The Starter Edition limits the number of concurrently running applications to just three. Painell said this would "get the most out of the hardware provided" and would allow manufacturers to "differentiate their offerings".
He pointed out that an antivirus application, which tends to run constantly, would not count as one of the three running applications. In addition, multiple instances of the same application will count as one.
Final release candidate
Microsoft expects RC1 to be the only release candidate for Windows 7, Painell said. He gave no details on the final release date other than confirming the company's current estimate that it will be generally available no later than January 2010.
Gartner research director Annette Jump told ZDNet UK on Thursday that she expected the final version of Windows 7 to arrive in the third quarter of this year, possibly shipping to manufacturers even earlier. Microsoft's decision to allow users to try out the release candidate until June next year would encourage them to move to Windows 7, she said.
"In the past, very few users for Windows would upgrade on their PC," Jump said. "For Mac OS, it's a different picture — a much higher percentage of users upgrade on their machines. Microsoft is possibly trying to encourage people to do that and, with the new user interface, for many consumers it will be quite appealing."
Jump praised the XP mode in Windows 7, saying it showed Microsoft was obviously learning from the mistakes it made with Vista, where there were "major application-compatibility issues".
"I think that feature will be very helpful for business buyers, in terms of trying to encourage them to move to Windows 7 faster," she said.
The analyst said the delay in a final release for the updated MED-V would be unlikely to affect most enterprise customers, as businesses would probably not deploy Windows 7 until 12 to 18 months after it had been released.
Jump predicted, however, that the three-applications restriction in the Starter Edition would dramatically limit the usage of that version. "Personally, I only see the Starter Edition on mini-notebooks being used for education and in very selected emerging markets," she said.
On the subject of Windows 7's lack of a guest-account feature, Jump said this feature was becoming decreasingly popular because more people are carrying around notebook computers, meaning they are less likely to need to use someone else's PC.