A closer look at Windows 7 release dates

Mary Jo Foley still thinks Windows 7 Beta 1 is going to be available in mid-December, specifically, December 17.

My money is on January 13.

So who’s right? Probably both of us. Mary Jo is probably right that the Beta 1 build will be locked down and signed off in mid-December, But I’m probably right about when everyone outside the hallowed halls of One Microsoft Way gets their hands on it.

The process of locking down a major release of Windows (which this will most certainly be) is a complex one. Right now, as I write this, Microsoft has already created “escrow builds” of Windows 7 that are feature complete. You could also call these release candidates, and although purists within the Microsoft dev teams might grimace, you would have the right idea. (Raymond Chen has an excellent explanation of how and why the terms have evolved. Money quote: “The term escrow does a good job of conveying the true state of the build: ‘It’s over, and we’re not going to touch it unless there is a real emergency.’”)

Those escrow builds are solid and stable enough to use every day and to test extensively, which is no doubt what is happening right now inside the Microsoft corporate network. The goal of the testing is to uncover regressions and showstopper bugs. At some point, after the list of potential showstoppers is cleared and no new bugs are found, an escrow build is declared ready to release.

December 17 is an ideal date to target for that to happen. If the Windows dev team hits its dates, everyone gets to enjoy the holidays and the code is ready to show off at CES. (And if any last-minute glitches appear, there’s still time to iron them out, even if it means a miserable Christmas and New Year’s for the engineers assigned to do the ironing.) Meanwhile, manufacturing can get busy cranking out DVDs and accompanying documentation for distribution to press, analysts, partners, and customers (like attendees of the MSDN Developers Conference).

In the old days (mid-2006 and earlier), invited beta testers (aka “technical” beta testers) had a special place in this hierarchy. They typically got builds that the general public never saw, and they got a head start on downloading and testing milestone releases. Today, under the current Windows management, that group officially doesn’t exist. If you’re not a Microsoft employee or part of a very small group of privileged corporate partners and OEMs, you’ll get the release at the same time as everyone else.

As a principal author of a book on Windows 7 under the Microsoft Press imprint, it’s frustrating as hell to work under the new system. Knowing that beta code will be ready some four weeks before I actually receive it and can begin dissecting and documenting it is maddening. But that’s the way things work at Microsoft, circa 2008.

Update: Be sure to read Rick’s lengthy comment below, which asks some really good questions about why Microsoft has chosen to freeze out “technical” beta testers. And then add your own comments, especially if you’re either a former technical beta tester or have an inside-Microsoft perspective.

3 thoughts on “A closer look at Windows 7 release dates

  1. I have to wonder what MS’s specific reasons were for essentially eliminating beta testing of Windows by large groups of external testers. Even the “technical” beta tester group, traditionally the first group of any size outside the company to get a look at a product, is on the outside looking in.

    This upcoming Beta 1 by all accounts is no Beta 1. Starting the “beta” at the RC stage, after the point all functionality is set in stone, when only bugs remain, defeats a large part of what a beta program is supposed to be.

    In light of pre-SP1 Vista, which set its fate, is it to create the illusion that it’s ahead of schedule and doing swimmingly? “Look, it’s practically RTM quality and it’s only Beta 1! They could ship this thing right now! MS sure has cleaned up their act.”

    Is it because of the warts-and-all, and some would say ultimately unsuccessful, Longhorn/Vista beta program? Beta 1, for example, was not good, and may have gotten the product off to a bad start perceptionally.

    Is it because they want to shield new features from Apple as long as possible? They were all revealed at PDC, but that was still many months after the point when we would have seen a normal Beta 1 under the old regime.

    Is it because of increased use of focus groups that they felt so satisfied with the changes they’ve made in early private builds that they didn’t need tester input?

    Is it because Win7 is a smaller, far less tumultous release as compared to Vista, that they felt they could deal with it mainly internally (and with the large OEMs, who probably had some input)?

  2. I got into the Technical Beta officially in the Win 98 program via being a MCSE and working for a Partner. Up through and including XP and its service packs to some degree it seemed the the Technical Beta folks got almost weekly builds and some were far rougher around the edges. It seems Vista really ushered in the more controlled and far fewer beta release program. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, I think ease of mass piracy is an issue. Even in the XP days it wasn’t as easy to just grab a torrent of the latest semi-public build now it is almost trivial. Second, I think Microsoft’s reporting mechanisms are so much better that they would rather have mass input on a few builds rather than a trickle of bug reports on a large number of different builds. Now with Windows Error Reporting and the Connect site they can manage that feedback much better. Lastly, I think it is to some degree a PR move. A bad beta could get negative press that Microsoft really doesn’t want or need for Win 7, they would rather have a few really solid releases with large jumps in refinement and functionality. The audience of the old Technical Betas could be pretty well managed now not so much.

    I must say however that I think if anyone outside Microsoft should have access I would think it would be you due to book. I can’t believe they don’t trust you to maintain control of a build given to you.

  3. I always assumed that you were hiding a build or two with your job writing the inside out series, Ed. Would understand it a little more if you weren’t doing it for MS Press, but it’s crazy that you were considered part of the little people.

    I am hoping for a download before christmas, but I am afraid the January target is probably closer to the truth.

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