Ballmer: Windows 7 is Vista, just 'a lot better'

Microsoft CEO defends first two years of Vista.

Windows 7 will be like Windows Vista, but more so, Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer said today as he defended the first two years of Vista and claimed its successor will be a major release.

"[Windows 7], it's Windows Vista, a lot better," said Ballmer during a 45-minute question-and-answer session hosted by a pair of Gartner Inc. analysts at the research firm's annual Symposium ITxpo in Orlando, Fla. today. The interview was later posted as a webcast on the Gartner site.

Ballmer was responding to a question from Gartner's Neil MacDonald, who asked how Microsoft would walk the line between doing too much with Windows 7 -- thus, risking the kind of compatibility problems that plagued Vista early in its career -- and too little, which might give customers an excuse to pass on the upgrade.

"Windows Vista is good, Windows 7 is Windows Vista with clean-up in user interface [and] improvements in performance," Ballmer said. "Look, I'm not encouraging anybody to wait, I'd go ahead and deploy it right away. We didn't have to go in an incompatible direction to make big strides forward."

Ballmer also took exception to the idea that Windows 7 will be a minor release or a spit polish on Vista. "It's a real release," he said, "because it's a lot more work than a minor release. It turns out you can [do] more than just a minor release in what is essentially a two-and-a-half year period of time. There's no reason to do just, quote, a minor release, in two-and-a-half years."

The major-minor release question has plagued Microsoft since shortly after Vista was released, when company executives seemed to say that it planned to update its operating system on an alternating basis, with the major updates -- what Vista was to XP, for example -- every four years, with minor updates in between. By that map, Windows 7 would be a "minor" update, since Vista was "major."

Microsoft itself has given mixed messages about the follow-up to Vista. Many observers have interpreted the fact that Microsoft has been adamant about application and device driver compatibility between Vista and Windows 7 as proof that the latter will be a minor upgrade. But top company officials have increasingly been pressing the "major" button; Ballmer is only the most recent to do so.

On Tuesday, for instance, when Mike Nash, vice president of Windows product management, said Windows 7 was the product's official name, he called the operating system "evolutionary" but still a "significant" advancement. "It is in every way a major effort in design, engineering and innovation," Nash said then.

But even as Ballmer defended Vista's first two years in the market, claiming that it has 180 million users, he seemed to understand that companies might decide to skip the OS and move straight from Windows XP to Windows 7. "If people want to wait, they certainly can," he said, answering MacDonald's question about why users simply shouldn't wait for the new-and-improved Vista, aka Windows 7.

"Look, no Windows release has to have people want to use it right away," Ballmer continued. "At least in this audience, everybody's going to test it. But the fact of the matter is, no one really ever waits." Instead, he argued, most companies constantly refresh a portion of their computer inventory each year, bringing in the newest operating system with that turnover.

Windows 7, which Microsoft has said would be out in the latter part of 2009 or early 2010, will debut as an alpha in less than two weeks, when the company hands it to attendees at its Professional Developers Conference (PDC), which opens Oct. 27 in Los Angeles.

It will be the first in what apparently will be a long line of operating systems built on the Vista code base. Today, Ballmer rejected the idea that Microsoft would need to do a "reset" of the client code in the near future. "We can do a lot of innovation for a lot of years on the same code base," he said before acknowledging that how the OS takes advantage of multi-core processors is still an open question.

"We have a lot of enhancements we can do [to the code base]," he said.

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