Microsoft has always been very open about its plans for Windows. With Vista, the openness bit back when many planned features were dropped late in development and what was shipped fell far short of what was promised. With the development of the next version of Windows, though, Microsoft has become positively Apple-ish, saying next to nothing about the features planned for Windows 7.
CEO Steve Ballmer opened the kimono a tiny bit at the D conference last week when he showed of a new multi-touch interface and gave a glimpse at a new task bar. While I think multi-touch is a very important technology, its effective use is going to require the development of new classes of hardware, and that will be a long time coming. In the meanwhile, what will be the key mainstream features of Windows 7?
I suspect it is going to be a rather modest effort, more like Vista 1.1 than a full-blown OS release. From a marketing point of view, the most important thing about it is that it will be called something other than Vista, a brand that never raised much enthusiasm among either consumers or corporate IT buyers and one that has been subjected to relentless mockery in a highly successful Apple ad campaign. (It won't be called Windows 7 either; that's a development code name.
Microsoft has made, and announced, three critical architectural decisions. Windows 7 will use the core code, or "kernel" of Windows Server 2008, which is very similar to the Vista kernel. It will continue to be available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. And it will not require the rewriting of any "drivers," the critical bits of software required to make hardware such as printers, scanners, communications devices, and storage systems work.
These decisions should guarantee that windows 7 avoids the compatibility problems that have plagued Vista, but I think the decisuion to offer a 32-bit version is a mistake. Assuming that Windows 7 is released early in 2010--Microsoft's official target--it will come nearly four years after Intel and AMD both substantially completed their transition to 64-bit processors. That means that just about any system that could be considered for an upgrade to Windows 7 is 64-bit capable.
The biggest advantage to users of a 64-bit operating system is that it ends to 3 GB memory limitation that has become a real problem in 32-bit Vista. But more significantly, 64-bit standardization would both greatly simplify the Windows product line and signal that Microsoft was willing to make a technological leap, even if it meant leaving some old equipment and some old software in the dust. After all, Apple's OS X has been all 64-bit, first on PowerPC chips and then on Intel, since it was introduced in 2001.
One intriguing possibility for Windows 7 is that Microsoft could revive a radically new file system called WinFS, which turns data storage into a true database. WinFS was originally planned for Vista but was dropped when it became clear that it could not be finished in time for Vista to be completed in late 2006. Microsoft originally said it would ship WinFS later as a Vista add-on, but that never happened. While development was moved to the back burner, the project never went away. Still, given the generally very conservative approach Microsoft is taking to Windows 7, I think a departure as big as WinFS is very unlikely.