Microsoft Windows 7 Release Candidate Arrives for Some - Most Must Wait

NEWS ANALYSIS: Microsoft is preparing the developer, OEM and other partner channels for Windows 7, which release candidate marks an important developmental milestone. The company claims stronger "partner engagement" than Windows Vista at same development stage.

Today, Microsoft is releasing Windows 7 Release Candidate to MSDN and TechNet subscribers, with public availability coming on May 5. Microsoft isn't waiting until next month to tout the release candidate, which marks the near completion of Windows 7 development.

Jeff Price, senior director for the Windows ecosystem team, spoke with eWEEK about the release candidate. For starters, there is the question of system requirements.

"We're targeting the same class of hardware that Windows Vista targeted," Price said. "The system requirements are essentially the same as Vista. " Microsoft recommends a PC have 1GHz or faster 32-bit or 64-bit processor; 1GB RAM (32-bit) or 2GB RAM (64-bit); 16GB available hard disk space for 32-bit installations and 20GB for 64-bit; DirectX 9 graphics chip supporting Windows Device Driver Model (WDDM) 1.0 or higher driver

"That set of requirements, when we introduced Windows Vista, was somewhat aggressive - meaning there was a large part of the PC install base at the Vista time that didn't meet that," Price said. "But now, fast forward 2 ??ó years, and we have a large array of PCs in the install base that are compatible and capable of running Windows 7."

Price understates the breadth of the hardware configuration problem for Vista. The mobile transition that started in late 2005 caught Microsoft poorly prepared. Microsoft designed Vista with the expectation that, following Moore's law, processing and graphics power would continue to double in performance. But the market transition from desktops to notebooks put temporary breaks on Moore's law. During Vista's launch period and the year or so that followed, Moore's law ran in reverse as lower powered laptops replaced higher-performance desktops.

The real test of those system requirements will be netbooks, or what analysts call mini-notebooks. Newer models come with 1.6GHz Intel Atom processors and 1GB to 2GB of RAM. "It runs great on those configurations," Price said of netbooks, "much better than Windows Vista does and as good as or better than Windows XP does."

Additionally, if Windows 7 really runs well on configurations as low as Price says, many organizations running Windows XP PCs could migrate without deploying new hardware. Such an option would appeal to some IT organizations with reduced budgets, but potential take away sales from some Microsoft OEM partners.

On April 29, Microsoft provided eWEEK an early preview of the 23-page "Windows 7 Product Update: Key Changes Included in the Release Candidate." Microsoft made many tweaks and enhancements with Windows 7 Beta 1, which released in January.

One new feature, Remote Media Streaming, could be Microsoft's SlingBox killer. The feature lets end users stream media content from a PC across the Internet to another device. "It's an interesting extension of the core media sharing experience of Windows 7," Price said.

Another new feature is currently separate from the new operating system. Microsoft is releasing Windows XP Mode concurrently alongside the release candidate but not as part of Windows 7. XPM will come as a beta, for now. XPM "is comprised of both the underlying virtualization layer that has been updated for Windows 7 as well as a pre-built [version] of Windows XP SP3," Price said. He asserted that XPM "sets us up for a smoother migration experience for customers, because it allows them to carry forward compatibility with some older XP apps that provides a good transition experience as they're moving to Windows 7."

Contrary to a recent Microsoft blog post that stated XPM was for small businesses, Price said that it also is for medium and large businesses. In concept, once installed, XPM looks to the end user like any other application. "We will populate that to the Windows 7 Start Menu," Price said. "You as an end user might not know anything about virtualization or how this was set up for you by your IT Pro. You'll just start Quicken 2004 from your Start Menu, and in the background we will start up the XP virtual machine and surface that application into a window."

Microsoft recommends that XPM be run on computers with 2GHz or faster processors with hardware virtualization support. "Because of that hardware acceleration, the performance is pretty snappy," Price asserted.