Microsoft officially says it will ship the Windows 7 operating system within three years of the January 2007 consumer release of Windows Vista. But speculation abounds that the software giant is gunning to ship halfway through 2009 to be on machines for the back-to-school and holiday seasons.Microsoft has hinted, whether intentionally or by accident, at a 2009 Windows 7 release by saying on its WinHEC website that, "WinHEC  is the only chance for you to engage with the team at this level\u2014there is not another WinHEC planned before Windows 7 is released." This is eyebrow-raising given that the next WinHEC is scheduled for early May 2009. Adding to the bits of evidence that Windows 7 will ship early is a slip of the tongue from Jerry Shen, CEO of Windows OEM Asus, who said in a recent interview: "In the second half of next year we will put Windows 7 on Eee PCs." No matter when Windows 7 actually ships, industry analysts agree that the marketing and release of 7 needs to go off without a hitch to avoid the problems encountered during the tumultuous release of Windows Vista. Gartner: The Earlier the BetterGartner Research has predicted that Microsoft will ship Windows 7 in time for the 2009 holiday season, which would require shipment to take place around August 2009."It's much better for a new version of Windows to ship before the holidays than after," says Michael Silver, a vice president and research director at Gartner. "After the holidays there are all sorts of problems with advertising the new release to consumers because ads can't start before the holiday because they might suppress PC sales."Silver expects that Microsoft will try to differentiate Windows 7 from Vista by keeping ship date hype to a minimum and then delivering earlier than anticipated."If they don't give a date, it's harder for people to say they were late," he says. "This is more of a point release than a major 'dot zero' release, like Windows XP. And Windows XP shipped 18 months after Windows 2000. So 30-something months should really be doable [for Windows 7]."But Can Windows 7 Make the Holiday Deadline?Al Gillen, research VP of system software at IDC, is not entirely convinced that Windows 7 could make the 2009 holiday timeframe even if Microsoft wanted it."Let's work backwards to get a reality check," says Gillen. "For Microsoft to make holiday 2009, the product must be released to OEMs by, say, September, or October 1 at the latest. That will be RTM [release to manufacturing] code. Back up to RC2, RC1, Beta 3, Beta 2 and Beta 1, and you are looking at a minimum of an 8-month window." Gillen said that Microsoft could still make the holiday schedule, but there would be no Beta 3, and possibly no RC2. "What happens between now and early January will be pretty telling. But keep in mind that Microsoft's early-adopter customers tell Microsoft when they think the product is ready to ship. They can delay it if they feel features are not mature enough," he says.As far as the tone Microsoft should take with the Windows 7 release, Gillen says the software giant will be cautious because it has been burned too many times on ship dates. "I think Microsoft is being conservative on its promises and schedules and may be trying not to over-promise. It remains to be seen if they can over-deliver."Be Flexible and Make Less Noise Than VistaRoger Kay, president of research firm Endpoint Technologies, said that Microsoft needs to remain open and flexible as it builds to the release of Windows 7, whenever that may be. "Microsoft, because of its position in the industry, must signal its intentions with lots of warning. So, as the code stabilizes, the company will begin to refine its target ship date," Kay says.He added that shipping Windows before the 2009 holiday season will be helpful, but it's not critical. "Vista is finally stable and could sustain holiday 2009. But shipping Windows 7 would be nice as a way to stimulate traffic."Kay stressed that it's also wise for Microsoft to be more low key than it was with the somewhat bombastic unveiling of Vista. "Microsoft should probably not spend on a launch like it did for Vista, but be lower key. Nonetheless, I think uptake for Windows 7 will be much better, since its backend is built on the now-stable Vista, but the front end is much better."Gartner's Silver contends that Microsoft is on the right path with Windows 7 because it is positioning it as something more than Vista R2. Being on time for holiday 2009 is another way to stay on that path, he says.Silver concludes: "Where it could get messy for Windows 7 is if the drivers and apps are not ready yet, or they miss the holiday by a few weeks again."