The beta version of Windows 7 isn't even quite out the door -- that begins in earnest today, when Microsoft starts the consumer beta test of Windows Vista's replacement.
But that hasn't stopped Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) executives from looking past the beta to the final step before commercial release, suggesting that the software giant is pushing hard to get to the finish line, and quickly.
The final testing phase before release is dubbed a "release candidate" or RC. During RC, Microsoft issues a "candidate" to a chosen group of testers. If no one finds any show-stopping bugs during the phase, the product is then "released to manufacturing," or "RTMed" in Microsoft parlance. If a major bug is found, it's fixed and another RC is released.
"Right now, our focus is on RC1 [and] I don't expect a change in that plan," Mike Nash, corporate vice president of Windows product management, told InternetNews.com.
While he declined to comment further on Windows 7's development schedule, the fact that Nash's team is already concentrating on an RC suggests that Microsoft is hoping to have only one beta cycle for the new release -- not two or more as with some products, such as Internet Explorer 8, which is currently in its second beta and is on its way to RC status later this quarter.
That's a brisk testing period for the public beta, which Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said officially begin Friday. Ballmer's comments came during his keynote at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Officially, Microsoft is still saying that it will release Windows 7 within the three years after Vista's consumer debut, which took place on Jan. 30, 2007. By that reckoning, it could ship in early 2010 and still be on time.
Yet Nash's comments are the latest clues that Microsoft may be readying Windows 7 far sooner than expected. InternetNews.com reported in September that Microsoft is pushing to get Windows 7 done and out the door by as early as June 3.
Further evidence for an imminent release of Windows 7 came from Malaysian technology enthusiast site, TechArp, which posted what it believes is the preliminary schedule for what Microsoft calls its "tech guaranty." The term refers to a marketing program that enables users who buy a Vista PC before Windows 7 comes out to get a free upgrade to Windows 7 when it comes out.
According to TechArp's site, the date after which PC purchasers get the tech guaranty's free upgrade is currently set to July 1.
Not everyone is convinced. "That [schedule] would be really aggressive ... I would expect it [RTM] nearer the end of the summer," Matt Rosoff, analyst at Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com.
Even if it's planning for a summer release, Microsoft still may not meet its internal deadlines: The company has had a history of shipping products later than planned. However, it may be seeking to avoid a repeat of what took place with Vista, which turned out to be one of its most delayed launches.
For his part, Nash declined to be pinned down to a specific timeline.
"The problem is I want to have a date that I can be sure of, and making up a date is just a guaranteed way for us to disappoint and be wrong," he said.
Microsoft could see a handsome reward for driving Windows 7 to the RTM stage sooner, rather than later. If the company doesn't get the final version of Windows 7 to PC makers by sometime this summer, it could miss the 2009 holiday sales season. But if it reaches RTM by late spring, Windows 7 could even conceivably start showing up on PCs in time for late summer back-to-school sales, perhaps giving consumers cowed by the recession a reason to return to stores.
While it may be brief, Windows 7's public beta will benefit a fast push to market thanks to the expected 2.5 million users who will be kicking its tires over the next few months.
"We've never had a [beta test] count that big," Nash said.
Armies of Microsoft programmers and participants in earlier, private testing have labored to make sure that the release is as bug-free as possible. But having a massive wave of fresh eyes look over the product through its public beta could further ease the stress of an aggressive release schedule.
It's unclear whether efforts by Microsoft to get Windows 7 quickly out the door are based on the generally favorable reactions already being received by early versions of the product. Reviews of pre-beta copies given out to developers in fall, as well as the recently leaked non-public Beta 1 build -- also called "build 7000" -- have largely praised the beta's stability and reliability.
Part of Windows 7's stability could be attributed to the fact that its based on the most recent Vista code, which has had a lot of fixes applied over the two years since Vista's release.
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.