With the Windows 7 RC (release candidate) being made available to the general public today, thus sparking more final ship date predictions, now seems a good time to comment on how surprisingly well Microsoft has worked the clocks on its road to Windows 7.Through the January beta to today's RC (occasional server crashes notwithstanding), Windows 7 has garnered growing enthusiasm and stayed on a consistent timetable, differentiating itself from embattled predecessor Vista in subtle ways and never framing itself as earth-shatteringly different from Vista because \u2026 well \u2026 it isn't, at least not on the backend (security, driver and app compatibility). It's just leaner and more flexible and, by most accounts, better. If it isn't better than Vista, Microsoft will be in a world of hurt. After Vista, Windows 7 will need all the positive vibes it can get. It will also need the agility run on those little things currently sweeping the nation called netbooks.A lot of this credit for Windows 7 smoothness can go to Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, who has kept the big boat steering in the right direction. Sinofsky's team has been transparent about Windows 7 features from the beginning, revealing some interface eye candy early on and then slowly spreading the word about "under the hood" security and networking features for enterprises. Yet it did all this without overhyping \u2014 something Microsoft arguably did with Vista three years ago. But Windows 7 is by no means home yet. There were many small changes made between beta and RC that will be scrutinized and a new add-on in the Windows 7 RC called Windows XP Mode, which allows XP users to run applications in a virtual environment within Windows 7, could cause support headaches for IT managers, say industry analysts.But Windows 7 is moving forward rapidly and efficiently. Microsoft is planning to allow RC downloads to continue through July, and the RC will not expire until June, 2010. There was only one Windows 7 beta and Microsoft has said there will be only one RC before Windows 7 is finalized, and the time between them was relatively short. Which leads us to those final ship date predictions....In a recent story, Computerworld reporter Gregg Keizer ran some numbers based on the time between the RC and final release of both Windows XP in 2001 (115 days) and Vista in early 2007 (138 days). Applying these timeframes to the May 5 Windows 7 RC, Windows 7 will ship between August 28 and Sept. 20. That timeframe, which would leave sufficient time for a marketing blitz for the holidays, is consistent with previous predictions from veteran Microsoft bloggers. October 23 is also getting thrown around as the Windows 7 ship date (apropos of not much, but that also happens to be my birthday).A UK-based marketing director of PC maker Acer named Bobby Watkins said in a recent interview: "23rd October is the date the Windows 7 will be available. There is a 30 day upgrade time so that customers don't wait to buy a new computer, so if you buy during that 30 day period, you'll get a free upgrade to Windows 7."Not much subtlety there. It's almost unnerving how certain he sounds of October 23 (again, my birthday).Even a Microsoft senior executive, Bill Veghte, said that a 2009 Windows 7 release is "accomplishable." This is hardly an admission of a pre-holiday Windows 7 release. I'm not even sure "accomplishable" is a word. But still, it beats what the heavily-scripted fleet of Microsoft executives has been saying for what seems like forever. To paraphrase the tired company line: "Windows 7 is expected to release approximately three years from when Windows Vista became generally available to consumers."That would be January. And that would be a waste of time given how well Windows 7's time has been managed so far.