Windows 7, the next version of Windows, is closer than you might think, with early copies already in the hands of OEMs and trusted partners. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer demonstrated an early version of its user interface at the D6: All Things Digital conference in May but Steven Sinofsky - who took over Windows 7 after his success getting Office out of the door on time, time after time - is well known for keeping things close to his chest.
There's been very little solid information about just what's going to go into Microsoft's flagship OS, just plenty of speculation and rumour. So what can you expect from Windows 7? Here's what we predict...
1. Windows 7 won't be a from-the-ground up rewrite of Windows. Instead it'll be an evolution of the NT kernel as updated in Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008, according to Windows Product Manager Chris Flores. This will mean that applications should run without needing significant changes, and there will be an upgrade path from Windows Vista (though things will be harder for Windows XP users).
The rumoured "MinWin" kernel is most unlikely - though it's likely that there'll be lessons learned from Windows Server 2008's modular architecture, which Microsoft could use to offer a version of Windows 7 that runs on cheap 'netbooks' that Vista overloads.
2. Windows 7 will introduce new touch-based features to the Windows user interface. This will include gesture-based operations similar to those demonstrated by Apple's iPhone and Microsoft's own Surface. The controls demonstrated at D6 included a ring launcher similar to the one developed by Microsoft Research for its Ink Seine tablet note taking tool. There may well be similarities with the touch interface for Windows Mobile 7.
3. Forget the Vista delays; Windows 7 will probably ship early. To say that Microsoft was disappointed by the late release of Vista is an understatement and not only is it managing Windows 7 expectations carefully, but Sinofsky has a reputation for shipping on time. This October's Professional Developers Conference should see the first public unveiling of developer versions of Windows 7 (with more low-level information a week later at the hardware-centric WinHec). And while Microsoft is saying that a final release will be in 2010, there's the distinct possibility of a release in the second half of 2009.
4. Windows 7 will feature more integration with Windows Live, fulfilling Ray Ozzie's promises about cloud computing. The third wave of Windows Live tools is due soon, and it should increase the integration between Microsoft's online and offline worlds. There's a lot going on in the Live world, especially with Live Mesh which isn't just a sync tool - it's technology for bringing the desktop and the internet closer together. Leaked internal memos show Windows 7's look-and-feel will extend out into the web, and Live IDs will become an important part of the Windows set-up procedure.
5. 64-bit Windows 7 will be important. While there will be a 32-bit version of Windows 7, we're likely to see OEMs installing 64-bit versions. Quad-core PCs with 4GB or more of RAM are becoming more common (and are getting cheaper and cheaper). A 64-bit version of Windows 7 will be able to take advantage of 2010's hardware - and there might finally be enough 64-bit drivers by then, as Windows 7 will use the same driver model as Windows Vista.
6. Virtualization in the form of Hyper-V is a key part of Windows Server 2008; expect a desktop version of Hyper-V to ship with Windows 7, though probably only in enterprise editions. It'll make it a lot easier for businesses to deploy Windows 7 (and it'll also make disaster recovery and back-up a lot easier).
Integration with hardware security features like the TPM will also make a virtual Windows 7 more secure - making it harder for malware authors to deliver Trojans, thus reducing the risk of botnets and perhaps even helping the spam problem. Windows 7 admin tools will probably be based on the object-oriented PowerShell system.
7. Microsoft will keep Windows 7 closer to its chest than any version so far. We've heard that OEMs have received builds a lot more advanced than the M1 build that leaked earlier this year, but while they're getting a lot more information from Microsoft than they have in the past, they're also doing better at keeping the details they've been given secret.
Microsoft has learned a lot from Apple about keeping things under wraps, and doesn't plan on giving away the whole Windows 7 story before launch. There will be public releases, but like the developer previews of Internet Explorer 8, they won't include all the features that'll be in the final version by a long way. More PlayStation 3 News...