Windows 7 will include features specifically developed for enterprise customers and partners in an unprecedented number of technology early-access programs Microsoft is offering for the forthcoming OS.
Microsoft invited more than 100 customers and partners to give feedback on Windows 7 early on in its development process in an attempt to learn from mistakes it made when building Vista, said Gavriella Schuster, a senior director of Windows product management, in an interview Tuesday.
Microsoft developed four new customer and partner focus groups and spent six months planning how it would build Windows 7, and how it would engage customers early and often in that process, before even beginning development, she said.
Microsoft revealed more about this process in a blog post on the Windows Team Blog Wednesday.
In addition to expanding the number of testers in its existing Technology Adoption Program from about a dozen to nearly 20, Microsoft formed a Desktop Advisory Council, an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) engagement group, a Windows ecosystem readiness program and a First Wave program of customers to deploy the beta in live environments to garner "really early insight" from customers and partners about what the final OS should look like, Schuster said.
The company invited 4,000 enterprise customers in the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Japan, India and China to provide feedback as part of extensive research as well, she said.
Enacting this unprecedented level of early customer engagement, combined with an effort to make the development process more predictable in general, were aimed at avoiding missteps the company took as it built Vista. Features Microsoft promised early on in Vista's development didn't make it into the final code, and the process itself was shut down and restarted midway through.
"We know the stop-and-start nature of Vista [development] posed a lot of challenges for customers," Schuster said.
With Windows 7, Microsoft has tried to share information "only when we had a higher degree of certainty" Microsoft could deliver on features or time frames for release milestones, she said.
As a result of all of this effort, Windows 7 will include several enterprise-specific features developed based on feedback from Microsoft's focus groups and other research.
Customers and partners said that protecting corporate data was a key priority, which is why Windows 7 will expand the BitLocker feature from Vista with a BitLocker To Go feature, Schuster said.
BitLocker To Go will extend the encryption already provided by the feature not only to the PC's hard drive itself but to any external USB device that is plugged into the laptop, she said. This will make it more difficult for hackers to access data not only on the PC but on peripherals connected to it.
Enterprise customers also expressed a need to ensure that corporate users only install and use authorized applications on their PCs and desktops, which led Microsoft to include a new AppLocker feature in Windows 7, Schuster said.
AppLocker allows IT administrators to determine through group policy what applications a user is able to install. For instance, a policy can be set that a user can install any application from Adobe Systems or to be more specific, only Adobe Acrobat 8.1 or later, Schuster said.
Policy setting in AppLocker can also be narrowed down to the "script level," with administrators authorizing that users can install only certain scripts on their machines, she added.
Enterprise customers also told Microsoft during the feedback process that they need to be able to give better remote access to employees because more of them are working outside of the office and that will continue. As a result, Windows 7 will include a couple of new features to make it easier for remote workers to access corporate networks, she said.
One is a DirectAccess feature that replaces a virtual private network with a secure tunnel to the network at the core OS level. Another is a Branch Office Caching feature that allows users on a corporate network to find and access a file on another corporate user's local machine if it already has been downloaded from the corporate network to that machine. This makes it easier for users to get access to files on a corporate network, Schuster said.
Microsoft is widely expected to release Windows 7, which is now in beta, before the end of the year. Microsoft has said it is on track to deliver the OS three years after it released Vista, which went out to business customers in November 2006 and to the general public in January 2007.