And so it begins: The Windows 7 marketing push

Microsoft is speaking on the record about Windows 7 for the first time, though the message is controlled and diluted. The important takeaway is that the next Windows operating system will not be a major overhaul to Vista.

This morning, Microsoft officials have begun to speak publicly about the edition of Windows that follows Vista, as a real product whose development is under way. But just like the last go-round, what they're saying mainly revolves around the fact that they're speaking publicly.

"What is a little different today is when and how we are talking about the next version of Windows," reads a blog post from Windows product manager Chris Flores this morning. "So, why the change in approach? We know that when we talk about our plans for the next release of Windows, people take action. As a result, we can significantly impact our partners and our customers if we broadly share information that later changes. With Windows 7, we're trying to more carefully plan how we share information with our customers and partners. This means sharing the right level of information at the right time depending on the needs of the audience."

The aim here is to present the appearance of openness; but in the attempt, as is notable from the above citation, Flores gave away perhaps too much of Microsoft's motivation, by referencing Windows' customer base using the marketing term "audience."

There is, and probably will continue to be, more "talk" from Microsoft about the next Windows, certainly for at least the next 19 months. Two weeks ago, company chairman Bill Gates made clear that major Windows release life cycles will be contained to three years. Flores expanded on that statement this morning ever so slightly, saying, "We're happy to report that we're still on track to ship approximately three years after the general availability of Windows Vista."

As Vista users will recall, "general availability" took place in January 2007, although business license holders began receiving their first editions the previous October. Though Microsoft would certainly prefer for general availability of Windows 7 to take place before the holidays, this sets the company's "track" destination at the start of 2010.

And while that may sound like plenty of time, unless Microsoft has plans for an expedited beta program, it would need to start its first round of betas for Windows 7 next month (June) in order to match the amount of time the company provided for Vista testing. Of course, that's assuming a year-and-a-half's worth of testing is necessary for this go-round; and based on the theme of today's messages from Microsoft, Windows 7 may not be that ambitious.

"Windows Vista established a very solid foundation, particularly on subsystems such as graphics, audio, and storage. Windows Server 2008 was built on that foundation and Windows 7 will be as well," Flores wrote. "Contrary to some speculation, Microsoft is not creating a new kernel for Windows 7. Rather, we are refining the kernel architecture and componentization model introduced in Windows Vista. While these changes will increase our engineering agility, they will not impact the user experience or reduce application or hardware compatibility. In fact, one of our design goals for Windows 7 is that it will run on the recommended hardware we specified for Windows Vista and that the applications and devices that work with Windows Vista will be compatible with Windows 7."

In other words, think of Windows 7 as more than a service pack, less than an overhaul. Microsoft will apparently not be repeating the same marketing approach with 7 as with Vista, which was touted as so much of an improvement that users should seriously consider upgrading their systems. Apparently this time, that kind of incentive will not be applied.

Typically Microsoft launches a marketing initiative such as this by granting at least one exclusive interview to a member of the press; and this time, it was with CNET's Ina Fried. In a dialog published early this morning with Microsoft's senior vice president for Windows and Windows Live, Steven Sinofsky, Fried asked some very pointed, probing, and appropriate questions of the Windows marketing chief, and his limited and well-considered answers were published verbatim.

At one point, Fried asked Sinofsky whether Gates' remark that Windows 7 would be coming in some form next year, referred to the company's beta road map. Sinofsky would only say, "What I think I want to say is what I just said, which is we said we'd be out there with a release of Windows 7 three years after the general availability of Windows Vista. We're excited; the investments that we have are really about producing a major and significant release at that time."

What we can infer from Sinofsky's comments to CNET's Fried, as well as Flores' blog post, is that Microsoft may be taking a cue from Intel with regard to its "tick-tock" cadence for product introductions; only for Microsoft, the interval between events will be three years. Windows 7 may be to Vista what Windows 98 was to Windows 95: quite literally, a second try to get everything right.

The basic underlying platform of Windows, including driver support, should remain steady for Windows 7, Sinofsky stated. Significant re-engineering will not be required, particularly from the many partners whom Sinofsky cited as having already contributed to the discussion of what Windows 7 should include.

After all was said, however, it turns out very little was actually said, except for just enough to get the buzz going on Windows' latest release.

While both Sinofsky and Flores illustrated how they wish to engage in more of an open dialogue with this next release, Microsoft MVP Brandon LeBlanc responded to Flores' message this morning with a little word of warning: "Please hold off on asking any questions targeting anything specific (like features, betas, etc) about Windows 7 just yet as we'll [be] unable to give you answers."

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