What is it?

Windows 7 RC1 is the free for use latest release candidate or beta version of the upcoming Microsoft desktop operating system, due for release later on this year.

This new software has been improved since the first beta edition came out in January, initially shown at Las Vegas' CES show.

Its final release date was first thought to have been January 2010, making its arrival exactly 3 years after Vista began shipping. At a press conference for the company Acer the actual shipping date was accidentally leaked, which is now around 23 October this year.

What are the variations of the technology?

The release candidate itself only comes along in the form of Ultimate Edition, this is the fully blown suite with everything on board and is perfectly suited for cutting edge machines.

Windows 7 however, when it finally ships will arrive in a number of different versions. There will be six in total, with really only two of them available to purchase that are aimed at the consumer - these listed as the Home Premium and Professional packages. The others are either aimed at the business world or system builders, where it will arrive already installed on a new computer.

Also on offer for the first time is an almost lite version of the OS for netbooks, entitled Windows 7 Starter. This version has been specifically tuned for the lower powered CPU based computers, with the ability to run only three applications at once making it ideal for those types of machines that currently can only run Windows XP.

Why should I care?

The public release candidate of Windows 7 has been significantly improved since its first outing, to a much more robust and stable operating system which will be indicative of the final version.

Since the January beta Microsoft has reportedly made 30 changes to Windows 7. Many of these aren't all that apparent to the layman, as they are reworkings to the basic code that runs inside of Windows 7.

Some of the more evident additions are the remote streaming, where media on a Windows 7 based computer can be streamed anywhere in the world over an internet connection.

Another addition, or more appropriately reduction in RC1, is the AutoPlay option when new media is detected and automatically run. This feature has now solely been consigned to optical discs, rather than any other media such as flash drives. This apparently came out of the recent Conflicker virus attack, which spread in a very similar way from flash drives themselves.

A rather controversial addition to this version is the Windows XP mode, in order to run older software. In RC1 and most likely the final version, the only way to run older software is from downloading a virtual operating system piece of software and run that application from inside of it.

This is because Windows 7 cannot natively support older software; this has caused much controversy - especially in the business world that heavily rely on older software to run aspects of the company.

Microsoft clearly has a lot of faith in this release given that they have an expiry for RC1 of June, next year. As they are confident this version will be seen as a reliable, stable platform and with economic times being what they are, Microsoft recognises not everyone will be able to upgrade on day one.

What's a good example in practice?

The good example is the OS itself, which has been available to download free of charge and to run from Microsoft's website since early May.

Subscribers to the likes of Microsoft's professional IT qualified technicians’ service and website namely TechNet, were able to download RC1 sometime before hand in, the response so far being positive.

Is there a competing technology that I should be aware of?

There is of course the early beta from January, which is now vastly out of date in terms of how it performs as compared to RC1.

During the process of working on this latest edition of Windows 7, Microsoft received well over 500,000 reports, all from users and just within the first 6 weeks. These were all to do with errors and issues needing to be fixed, along with ideas on features. All of which were farmed out to the developers, where some have found their way into RC1.

What is in store for the future?

Next is the various IT vendors and system builders such as HP and Dell to qualify their own hardware, all in order for Windows 7 to work perfectly on their systems. This is the stage that's possibly next and is currently being worked upon right now, as all the various bespoke drivers need to be written in order to move forward for the final version.

In previous versions of Microsoft's operating systems there has been another release candidate, before the final version was released. It's unsure if this will be the case this time around, primarily because of the June 2010 announcement for the platform to be still running and the readiness of the OS currently.

There are already software companies working on applications to use Windows 7's features. The graphics company Corel has made public news of their upcoming software having full multi-touch screen abilities before the OS even ships, where this is one of the core feature sets of Windows 7 and sets itself apart from Windows Vista.