Channel Ecosystem: Channel Gets a Crack at Windows 7

Microsoft launches Ecosystem Readiness Program for forthcoming operating system.

Microsoft has begun aggressively reaching out to the channel to prepare for the release of Windows 7.

The company released the Windows 7 beta on Jan. 7 and a month later rolled out a channel-focused program called the Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 Ecosystem Readiness Program.

According to a blog posting by Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president of Windows and Windows Live Engineering, the company is taking the channel very seriously for this release.

"We're now seeing how releasing Windows is not something that Microsoft does 'solo,' but rather is something that we do as one part of the overall PC ecosystem," Sinofsky wrote. "The last stages of a Windows release are a partnership across the entire ecosystem working to make sure that the incredible variety of choices you have for PCs, software and peripherals work together to bring you a complete and satisfying Windows 7 experience."

Sinofsky doesn't go so far as to say that Microsoft learned lessons in how not to release an operating system with Windows Vista, but the implication is evident. He does make clear that the schedule for the release candidate (RC) of Windows 7, along with release to manufacturing and general availability, will depend on partner readiness.

Partners will need time to get their hardware drivers and applications up to speed, Sinofsky explained in the blog. PC builders also need time to validate the Windows 7 team's work. Microsoft's close hardware partners and software vendors have been receiving interim builds of Windows 7 since its pre-beta release in late October and will continue receiving interim builds through the RC stage to ensure they've got access to the latest code.

"We're now seeing how releasing Windows is not something that Microsoft does 'solo,' but rather is something that we do as one part of the overall PC ecosystem."
Steven Sinofsky, Senior Vice President, Windows and Windows Live Engineering

Vista Transition
Driver compatibility is a touchy subject for Microsoft. The issue dogged Vista purchasing early on, giving pause to new PC buyers and IT professionals alike. Microsoft claims to have since remedied the situation.

For instance, in November, Jon DeVaan, Microsoft's senior vice president of the core operating system division, told WinHEC attendees that "today over 95 percent of PCs have all the drivers that they need" to run Vista. Some testers of Windows 7 beta have experienced problems running older hardware and software, but the reception has been generally positive, judging from Microsoft forum comments.

Windows 7 has been characterized as an enhancement to Vista, with a major design goal of ensuring that drivers and apps that work with Vista also work on Windows 7-a big difference from the Windows XP to Vista transition. Microsoft officially describes Windows Server 2008 R2 as an even "smaller incremental release to Windows Server 2008" than Windows 7 is to Vista.

Some of the channel push can also be seen as an attempt to avoid the "Vista Capable" PC flap that landed Microsoft in court with a class-action lawsuit in April 2007. The lawsuit exposed awkward internal e-mails suggesting Microsoft put strategic partner Intel Corp.'s quarterly business goals for moving a specific chipset over the needs of strategic partners like Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. to be able to sell consumers PCs that would perform adequately with the GUI features of Vista when the OS finally shipped.

Readiness Efforts
While Microsoft is pointedly not releasing system requirements yet, Microsoft officials say there's enough information out now for partners to ramp up their readiness efforts.

"Partners ... can confidently invest and start testing now because the Windows 7 beta will have the same API set that they will see in the final release," Mike Nash, corporate vice president, Windows Product Management, said in a statement.

Nash encourages partners to download the code and tools to get a sense of the products' capabilities, identify opportunities and to join the Ecosystem Readiness Program. For now, Microsoft is targeting a few specific categories of partners for its readiness efforts. They are independent hardware vendors, original equipment manufacturers, developers, independent software vendors and original device manufacturers.

6 Versions of Windows 7

In early February, Microsoft laid out the SKUs for Windows 7:

  • Home Premium: Core consumer version.
  • Professional: Core small business or home office version.
  • Enterprise Edition: Software Assurance version, with enterprise management and security features.
  • Home Basic: An emerging market version with entry-point features for low-priced, full-size PCs.
  • Starter Edition: A worldwide version, available only through OEMs, on PCs with specific types of hardware.
  • Ultimate Edition: An enthusiast version that brings some of the Enterprise Edition security features into an edition that doesn't require a Software Assurance contract.

Hardware and software partners can both join the program, which provides them with beta builds, development and test toolkits, technical documents and application testing labs, which can be accessed either in-person at Microsoft facilities or remotely via virtual servers.

The software partner sign-up is here and the hardware partner sign-up location is here.

Key Technology Areas
There are several technology areas where Microsoft is currently expecting the most interest from its ecosystem, according to Nash's statement.

One is the Device Stage, which provides a visual interface where customers can find and use applications and services for their hardware devices. Another is the multitouch feature, which allows users to manipulate objects on the screen with their fingers.

Microsoft is also hoping partners will make use of a few "better together" features that combine the Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 platforms. Two called out by Nash could have potential for solution provider and systems integrator partners. One of the technologies is called BranchCache and works with Windows 7 computers in a branch office, either with a Windows Server 2008 R2 system in the branch office or back at the home office. The feature allows HTTP and SMB content to be locally cached in the branch. If no local server is present, the Windows 7 clients share cached content with each other, depending on permissions set on the server at headquarters. The other, Microsoft Direct Access, uses IPv6 and IPsec to permit offsite users to access corporate resources without a virtual private network (VPN). Conversely, IT can use DirectAccess to manage those mobile PCs anytime the user is connected to the Internet, not just when the user is connected through a VPN or even logged on to the corporate network.