Microsoft will have a beta of Windows 7 available shortly after the first of the year, the company has hinted on its Web site.

Windows 7 Beta 1 will be ready before Jan. 13, 2009, according to the site touting the MSDN Developer Conference (MDC) , a series of one-day events for programmers that Microsoft promotes as a scaled-back, on-the-road version of its Professional Developers Conference (PDC), which it held in Los Angeles in late October.

The 11-city tour opens in Houston, Texas next Tuesday, then moves on to Orlando, Fla. on Dec. 11 and Atlanta, Ga. on Dec. 16 before taking a break over the holidays and resuming in Chicago and Minneapolis on Jan. 13.

In the description for the first three events, Microsoft notes : "All attendees will have a Windows 7 Beta 1 DVD mailed to them when they become available."

Starting with the Chicago and Minneapolis MSDN events, however, the descriptions change, and instead read, "All attendees will receive a Windows 7 Beta 1 DVD."

In late October, as Microsoft handed out alpha editions of Windows 7 to developers who attended PDC, the company confirmed that it would expand testing to the general public by releasing a beta version in early 2009. Microsoft has not named a launch date for the beta, however, nor gotten specific about how it will deliver the code.

Microsoft was not able Tuesday to confirm the Jan. 13 date or provide more information about the beta it has promised MDC attendees.

In related news Tuesday, Microsoft released the beta of Windows Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2) to subscribers of its developer services, and said it would open the preview to the general public on Thursday. The service pack will update not only Vista, but also Windows Server 2008, the company's corresponding server software; this is the first time that Microsoft has packaged a service pack that applies to both the client and server editions of the operating system.

Windows 7, which Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer has characterized as "Windows Vista, a lot better," is expected to ship in final form near the end of 2009 or in early 2010, although some pundits and bloggers have speculated that the newest operating system will be finished months before then.