Windows 7 beta is due in early 2009
Unlike its predecessor Vista, Windows 7 is looking like it's going to arrive relatively quickly, with a beta test edition likely to appear early in 2009 and the full commercial release due by early 2010 - just three years after Vista's formal launch.
Vista was delayed by a protracted rewrite to tighten the operating system's security but failed to impress users - particularly corporate system administrators. Faced with user resistance, Microsoft extended Windows XP's service life by an extra year and is now hoping that Windows 7 will win over the doubters.
The new version will build on the fundamental improvements to security, reliability, and performance made in Windows Vista, the company said. The changes to Windows 7 will be much less profound, so there should be fewer compatibility problems with device drivers and applications that users experienced with Vista.
While the overall look and feel retains the same Aero interface that characterizes the more expensive versions of Vista, Windows 7 will have a new Taskbar that will take over the functions of Vista's Quick Launch area. Users can position icons on the Taskbar to launch applications with a single click and current programs will also show up on the bar. Enhancements have also been made to storage and management and multimedia playback facilities.
After looking at the new version for a day, one reviewer  concluded that Microsoft "is making all the right noises." Windows 7 will be faster on the same hardware as Vista, it will run longer on the same batteries, and it will be more reliable.
"Whereas Vista was two steps forward and one step back from Windows XP, there should be no downside to Windows 7 over Windows Vista. Windows 7 feels more polished than Vista, even in the preview, and performance is good."
The most innovative element of Windows 7 is the Touch Gestures part of the interface which will support touch-sensitive screens. This means users can sweep their fingers across the screen to move items, or resize them by squeezing their fingers together on the surface.
It's a neat feature, previously seen on the company's prototype Surface display . But are there likely to be any practical applications for business users? Excel blogger Smurf on Spreadsheets  already has some ideas. "Imagine being able to swap two cell contents in one move, pinching and stretching to grab selections or zoom and transpose with just a pivoting drag," he suggested. The touch interface also supports inertial scrolling and will "bounce" when you reach the end of a list - something that would be very welcome for many Excel users.
Neat spreadsheet tricks aside, Microsoft's operating system conveyor belt is looking like an increasingly tired and cynical business model to extract the maximum amount of cash from the Windows user base, according to the most intense discussions ever on our sister site Finance Week - Is it time to exit from Windows?