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Windows 7: What does 'feature complete' mean?

Now that Windows 7 Beta 1 -- which the Windows team built on December 12, 2008 -- has started leaking on torrents and is poised to make its public debut at the Consumer Electronics show, it's time to revisit Microsoft's "feature-complete" promise.

Last fall, when Microsoft officially took the wraps off Milestone 3 of Windows 7, company execs told testers that a true, feature-complete Windows 7 release wouldn't hit until Beta 1.

Now that Beta 1 -- which the Windows team built on December 12, 2008 -- has started leaking on torrents and is poised to make its public debut at the Consumer Electronics show, it's time to revisit that "feature-complete" promise.

Many individuals who've downloaded Build 6.1.7000.0.081212-1400 have noted that the Beta 1 build is solid but also somewhat boring. It seems to offer little beyond the Milestone 3 build, they've said.

That's not too surprising, given the Windows team's post-Vista mission of making Windows 7 the operating system that Vista should have been. It needs to be smaller, tighter and faster. If it also includes some eye candy, like Ribbon menus and touch-screen support, great. But from all accounts, it isn't supposed to be a radical departure from Vista (even though the Redmondians are continuing to tag it as a "major" new release).

Just because Beta 1 will be "feature-complete" doesn't mean the final version will look exactly like Beta 1. Microsoft usually plays fast and loose with the term "feature-complete," using it to mean complete enough for software and hardware makers to test against -- but not necessarily all sewn up from a user-interface/design perspective.

As my ZDNet blogging colleague Ed Bott noted, the new Windows 7 Beta 1 license agreement includes some surprises, such as the right to install Beta 1 on as many machines as a user would like. I'm sure this license agreement is NOT feature-complete and will be tightened down a lot before Windows 7 is released to manufacturing. And I'm highly doubtful there will only be three Windows 7 SKUs (Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate) by the time the product is finalized; I think packaging decisions are not feature-complete at this point in the cycle, either....

Bott also notes the time-bombed expiration on Beta 1 is August 2009. Latest RTM date I've heard circulating is July. With no Beta 2 of Windows 7 on the schedule (according to my sources), it's full steam ahead to final over the next few months.

ZDNet's Adrian-Kingsley Hughes has taken the leaked Windows 7 Beta 1 for a spin already. What do others out there who've mysteriously gotten their hands on the Beta 1 build think of it so far?