This wibble is only loosely related to gaming, but as it concerns what our PCs will be like in a couple of years' time, hopefully it's of some interest to those who haven't yet heard about Windows 7. If not, sorry. I'll put my fun-hat back on tomorrow, promise.
Upgraded to Vista yet? Well, of course you have. All those wonderful platform-exclusive games, those high-end graphical effects not possible on XP, all that added stability, security and speed... Irresistible, non?
[Cough]. My other life as a tech reviewer/upgrade obsessive means I do run Vista as my primary operating system, and I can honestly say that, the odd olden game incompatibility aside, I don't suffer any more trauma from it than I did from XP. However, its unfavourable position on the delayed launch/sluggish performance/cynical Directx10 exclusivity Venn diagram hasn't made fans of many gamers. Even the most fair-weather of PC gamers I encounter seem brimful of somewhat excessive Vista bile. Still, there was a ton of grumbling about XP to start with, but eventually it pretty much proved itself; Windows 98 and 2000 gamers are relatively rare creatures these days (though they're most certainly not extinct). Maybe we can expect the same from Vista after a couple of years.
Or maybe not. "Sometime in the next year or so we will have a new version [of Windows]", Bill Gates told the Inter-American Development Bank last week. Now, we'd already heard that Windows 7, as it's code-named (and should probably stay named, as a relief from focus group bullshit like 'XP' and 'Vista'), was due by 2010, and presumably that's still on-track. Gates was, it soon transpired, referring to a demonstrable early build within the year, not to a full release. Still, it's one more reason for those who haven't yet gone Vista to hang on for another couple of years. With DirectX 10 gaming still very much an unproven eye-delight, XP gamers can hardly be said to be feeling the upgrade burn. So, why not just hang on until Windows 7?
On the other hand, a three-year development timeframe is how Windowses used to be (while the Apple and Linux camps update still more quickly than that), so this isn't anything out of the ordinary. Moreover, Microsoft's officially keeping shtum about what Windows 7 actually involves so it doesn't trip up Vista's marketing, which might imply we can expect more DX10-exclusive games and another Service Pack or two yet.
Redmond hints suggest Win7's focus may be on web-centric applications - logging into your desktop/preferred programs from a variety of devices. It's the kind of thing that Microsoft's already toying around with in its Live services (including, to a point, the vile Games For Windows Live flavour, and its remotely-stored user profiles), with strong competition from Google Documents et al. Which is only barely relevant to gaming, I realise, aside from the as-yet unmentioned possibility of savegames or even games themselves being accessible from any web-enabled PC. However, there's talk of Windows 7 being a slimmer OS (thanks to the cutely-named new 'MinWin' kernel) that eats up less system resources, which could in turn mean a performance boost for our pretend-man-shoots.
In case you're interested, leaked screenshots of a supposed internal build do look worryingly straight outta Vista, but the GUI has been described as a placeholder for now.
Meanwhile, what about ol' faithful XP? It's to be withdrawn from sale with most new PCs in June, though will continue to be available with 'ultra-low cost PCs'. So, hang on to that old XP product key. You're gonna need it if you want a low-fat OS on your next uber-PC.
(Incidentally, I would love for another PC OS to take advantage of the massive chink Vista's left in Microsoft's armour and become a viable gaming platform for Johnny Average. My marriage to Windows is strictly one of convenience. Convincing the entire games industry to play along is what'll likely mean that doesn't happen, sadly.)