As users continue to grouse about Windows Vista nearly two years after its introduction, Microsoft appears relieved to turn its public focus on the next release of its flagship operating system. Pre-beta code (as Microsoft calls it) for Windows 7 is reportedly already in developers' hands, and reviewers are slated to have their first peek on the eve of the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles next week. The OS itself is slated to appear in early 2010-a scant three years after its predecessor.

Last spring, Microsoft's lead Windows spokesperson Chris Flores wrote a blog post saying Windows 7 would refine (but not abandon) the Vista kernel. However, additional details about the new OS's features have been scant-and Flores and others have basically said this is because they don't want to create expectations that might not be fulfilled. (Remember when Vista was going to include the database-like WinFS file system?) Consequently Microsoft says it will talk only about features that will definitely be in the OS.

The company declined interview requests for this story, pointing to various internal blogs that include Windows 7-related posts-most notably the Engineering Windows 7 blog hosted by senior Windows engineering managers Jon DeVaan and Steven Sinofsky on the Microsoft Software Developers Network. Here's what we've gleaned from the blogs and from assorted published reports:

Performance: Although Windows 7 will be built on the same code base as Windows Vista, a Fundamentals team (one of 25 within the Windows 7 development group) is working to speed up boot time, in part by trying to reduce the number of startup services, and to optimize the OS to take better advantage of technologies such as solid-state drives.

Let's hope those improvements are more effective than those that Vista Service Pack 1 provided. In our US-based sister magazine PC World's WorldBench 6 tests, Vista SP1 generated only a marginal performance improvement over the original version of Vista-and both versions' performance fell far short of Windows XP SP2's.

Interface Enhancements

In one of the few early demonstrations of Windows 7, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer last spring showed off its use of multitouch technology, similar to that in Microsoft's Surface tabletop computer.

In blog postings, Microsoft engineers have said they're working on improving the taskbar to better support users who tend to open large numbers of windows on their screen (the company's research indicates that nearly half of all users keep as many as six to nine windows open at a time), as well as to provide better ways to manage the windows themselves (including their size and arrangement). Published reports indicate that the ribbon interface that made its debut in core Office 2007 applications may also be a feature of Windows 7.

One Engineering Windows 7 blog post says that developers are looking into ways to customize notifications (the balloons that pop up on your taskbar to inform you about software and hardware updates), since many people find them intrusive. Another blog post says Microsoft wants to better expose Windows Media features (its research shows that only 10 percent of users actually enable the Windows Media Toolbar). The tenor of all the blog posts, however, is that users should be in control, because one person's useful toolbar is another's desktop clutter.

Applications: Microsoft officials have said that many of the traditional Windows accessories and applications that were bundled in Vista (including the Windows Mail e-mail client and image and video editors) will not be included in a standard Windows 7 installation. Instead, you will have the option of downloading Web-based Windows Live apps.