Microsoft just gave its first public demo of Windows 7, which will be released later today as a pre-beta test preview to attendees of the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. Judging from what I’ve seen, as well as initial response at the PDC and online, it looks like Windows 7 has a chance of repairing the damage done by Windows Vista’s disastrous launch — although we’ll have a better sense once people start kicking the tires.

There’s a bunch of new features that should make Windows easier to navigate and use. Perhaps the flashiest addition (or at least the one that makes for the coolest on-stage demo) is multitouch support. It looks like all applications in Windows 7 will be able to support basic multitouch interactions — for example, touching two fingers to the screen to scroll through documents in Microsoft Office — and developers can also build more sophisticated interactions into their applications.

Of course, you’ll need fancy interface hardware for this to matter — either the super-expensive Surface computer or at least a screen that supports touch. But there are other additions that should help all Windows 7 users. Perhaps most significantly, the taskbar in Windows 7 is now customizable, so users can change the order of the applications. Also, items in the taskbar are now accompanied by visual previews (showing, say, websites when you highlight Internet Explorer) rather than text descriptions. There are also improved search capabilities, a tool called Device Stage for managing external devices, “jump lists” to relevant applications and more.

Steven Sinofsky, vice president for Windows and Windows Live Engineering, said Microsoft has learned from its experience with Windows Vista. Most significantly, unlike Vista, Windows 7 will have strong device compatibility and application support out the door, he said. To a large extent, that’s just because Windows 7 is built on the same infrastructure as Vista, so there shouldn’t be any problems transitioning applications and devices to the new system.

As for Windows 7’s timeline, Sinofsky said a beta version should be available early next year. There’s no concrete timeline beyond that, but Microsoft’s goal is to release Windows 7 around three years after Vista became generally available in 2007. So expect to see something in 2010.

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