Basking in positive reviews, Microsoft extends Windows 7 beta program

Taking a leaf out of Google’s book (remember Gmail’s “invite-only” beta launch?), Microsoft initially restricted Windows 7 beta downloads to 2.5 million. It was the equivalent of an emerging band booking venue that’s too small for demand, its manager knowing that the queues and turn-aways will fuel the hype.

And so it was when Microsoft first made the Windows 7 beta public on January 9, its servers crashed under overwhelming demand. For once, it was a crash the company could be satisfied with.

The next day, CEO Steve Ballmer announced a 30-day trial version of the Windows 7 beta would be available to all-comers until January 30.

Today, Mr Ballmer extended that deadline until February 10.

Methinks it was the plan to expand the beta programme all along, once the initial “restricted” hype had run its course – on the proviso that the new Windows was well received. Which it largely has been.

The Wall Street Journal’s Walter Mossberg, one of the world’s grumpiest – but most influential – critics, says Windows 7 “leaves Vista in the dust” and is “a pleasure to use”.

Computerworld says “Windows 7 is clearly faster than Vista, and includes plenty of nifty new interface features and productivity-boosting tools such as better search and document management,” and, crucially, says there’s little doubt that Windows 7 is superior for a mass audience and will punish Linux in the fast-growing netbook market.

CNet likes the touchscreen features, while US PC World says Windows 7 offers company’s tougher security, and an easier multi-user roll-out.

Compared to the endless sniping suffered by Vista at this pre-release stage in its lifecycle (and, well, forever), so far Windows 7 is having a dream run.

Officially, Mr Ballmer will release Vista’s successor in early 2010. Insiders say he's now determined to push it out the door before the end of this year.

But in these days of Google domination, Microsoft's life is not as easy as releasing a well-received Windows upgrade, tricky as that is.

The company's future hangs equally on three other key projects: its Facebook-style Live web services upgrade (already underway, NBR pics and preview here); Office 14, which will offer Google Apps-style applications that run in a web browser rather than Windows (see NBR pics and preview here) and its coming foray into cloud computing.

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