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Microsoft chugs toward Windows 7 release

A near-final release candidate--expected to be the last public test version--is being given to developers on Thursday. It is slated to be publicly available May 5.

Microsoft isn't confirming just when Windows 7 will launch, but it is hoping that the fact that not too much has changed between the release candidate and beta versions will convince people that the product is nearly ready.

Subscribers to Microsoft's MSDN and TechNet developer programs will have access to the release candidate version starting Thursday, while the general public will have to wait until May 5. That said, users may not notice a huge difference between the two versions at first glance.

"We're not adding a ton of things," said Corporate Vice President Mike Nash in an interview. "Most of the changes are fit-and-finish things."

The company didn't say how many people it hopes will try out the version, which is expected to be the last public test version before Microsoft declares Windows 7 soup. Nash did say he is hoping plenty of IT professionals use the product at work and home and also that any lingering partners make sure they have tested their products.

Among the changes from the beta release are a more final version of Internet Explorer 8 and the expansion of a media-sharing feature to allow unprotected videos and music to be accessed remotely over the Internet.

Microsoft also said in February it would modify Windows 7 to require authorization before changes are made to the settings for a controversial user account control feature. Microsoft intentionally made the alerts less frequent in Windows 7 than they were in Vista, but some people complained that the specific changes Microsoft made also made it less secure.

In addition to the RC itself, Microsoft is also making available a beta version of XP Mode, an add-on to Windows 7 that uses virtualization to run programs that run in XP but not in Windows Vista.

Windows 7 is widely expected to be released in time for this year's holiday shopping season--a goal that one top executive said recently is "accomplishable," although Microsoft has stopped short of guaranteeing that.

"We have work to do before we can definitively say it's a holiday product," Nash said. "So far the feedback is very positive."

Perhaps the biggest issue with the release candidate is the fact that Microsoft did not make it easy to go from the beta version directly to the release candidate. Microsoft is recommending users either upgrade from Windows Vista or do a clean installation of the operating system.

Microsoft acknowledged this is a hassle, but said the move will allow it to get more feedback on the more standard upgrade paths most users will take and prevents it from having to support what it says is a non-standard case--moving from beta to RC. (I've heard grumbling from users both inside and outside the company over that call.)