There's been a lot that's come out regarding the next version of Windows, code-named Windows 7. Let me try to summarize what I've seen...
When it Will Release
First, let me touch on the release date, since that's been heavily debated. The initial speculation was that Windows 7 would be released in 2010. Later, rumors of a 2009 release cropped up. It wasn't too long until Microsoft released comments stating that Windows 7 would take three years to develop. Speculation from the field translated this to 2011 release. Of course, that was coupled with some doubt. As if that wasn't enough, Bill Gates recently stated that the team is targeting first quarter 2010. I'm sure the Windows team is slapping their heads wondering why he shared this, but it's too late, now. I believe the team has been purposefully quiet about the release for two reasons: (1) to ensure the release was on time; and, (2) to lessen the impact on Vista sales. I don't blame them. If you ask me, I think we'll be looking at an early 2010 release with hopes that it'll be ready in 2009. Of course, I have nothing to back that up, so it's merely a blind prediction.
How it Will Release
Microsoft has had a vision of releasing components of Windows independently for the past 6+ years. This was mainly related to the server operating system, but it's still a great feature for the client. With the software+services push, some are speculating there will be a piece-meal release methodology. I don't expect us to see this with Windows 7, but it's coming. There have also been rumors of subscriptions, which is another area Microsoft has been interested in for years. In my mind, this is more of an issue with society, than Microsoft. If the community would grasp the concept, Microsoft would definitely go there. I don't know if we'll see that in the next release or not, but it's another thing I see coming eventually.
What it Will Include
A while back, there were some hints to what was going to be included in Windows 7, but it now lookse the release is picking up a new set of pillars focused on design and usability: specialized for laptops, designed for services, personalized computing, optimized for entertainment, and engineered for ease of ownership.Taking it all in, the core concepts seem to be around ease of use, connected computing, and security -- pretty much taking the next step after Vista. I see this being evolutionary, as opposed to the revolutionary version of Windows I hoped this was going to be. I guess I can hold onto those hopes for the next release.
With an increasingly mobile workforce and consumer population, tuning the OS for laptops is going to be a big win. With this, they'll be looking at data security, responsiveness, touch/tablet interfaces, wireless connectivity, "on demand" access to all your information, and power management. Most of these are pretty obvious. The only one I had to take a second look at was "on demand" access. This is basically about either storing your information in the cloud or ensuring access to it, no matter where it may live. Windows Live is how we're going to get there. This pretty much says that Windows 7 will definitely have some Windows Live integration. I can already see the EU beckoning for "justice."
With the "on demand" component of the last pillar, we have a good transition into the second, designed for services. This one's obvious as well. Windows will focus on remaining up-to-date (as in with patches), worry-free upgrades, Windows online , help and community, family-friendly web experience, gadgets, and in-box application improvements. We already have most of what's here. I think the pillar is mostly about providing a more integrated experience. I am curious how Microsoft plans to achieve "worry-free upgrades." That's going a long way. Apple has that today, so it's not entirely out of the question, but I think Apple gets it thru customer confidence, not by technical prowess. Lastly, I'm interested in the application improvements. I've been using custom apps like Notepad2 and Paint.NET for a while now and it'd be nice to have something better than what was delivered in Windows 95 built-in. I heard about upgrades to these apps last year, but haven't seen what's come of that. The AeroExperience website posted these images. I hope this isn't it, tho. This is a bit minimal.
Personalized computing is something that will really bring Windows back to the consumer. To achieve this, Microsoft will target customization, internationalization, access anywhere, secure roaming, and home network management. Again, these are pretty self-explanatory.
The next pillar is about high definition graphics, media streaming, better playback, TV on Windows, and audio improvements. This is another area that is pretty much just enhancing what we already have today. I'm mostly interested in the TV on Windows scenario. This is already available, but very limited today. I consider this to be part of the Media Center vision, but Microsoft seems to have a few different products in the area. I hope there will be some consolidation here, but that may not make complete sense.
The last pillar is about ownership. Microsoft will put a strong emphasis on diagnostics and data recovery, lessening the fear of new applications by decreasing the need for administrative access, improved upgrade experience, administrative productivity and security enhancements, devices that "just work," quick/clean out-of-the-box experience, reduced management time/cost, and improved data security. We've seen a lot of improvements in this area with Vista and there's still some room to grow. If you haven't jumped on-board with Vista, you're in for a vastly improved experience and it looks like Windows 7 will be even better.