"[Windows 7], it's Windows Vista, a lot better," said Ballmer during a 45-minute question-and-answer session hosted by a pair of Gartner analysts at the research firm's annual Symposium ITxpo in Orlando, Fla. The interview was later posted as a webcast on the Gartner site .
Ballmer was responding to a question from Gartner's Neil MacDonald , who asked how Microsoft would walk the line between doing too much with Windows 7 -- thus, risking the kind of compatibility problems that plagued Vista early in its career -- and too little, which might give customers an excuse to pass on the upgrade.
"Windows Vista is good, Windows 7 is Windows Vista with clean-up in user interface [and] improvements in performance," Ballmer said. "Look, I'm not encouraging anybody to wait, I'd go ahead and deploy it right away. We didn't have to go in an incompatible direction to make big strides forward."
Ballmer also took exception to the idea that Windows 7 will be a minor release or a spit polish on Vista. "It's a real release," he said, "because it's a lot more work than a minor release. It turns out you can [do] more than just a minor release in what is essentially a two-and-a-half year period of time. There's no reason to do just, quote, a minor release, in two-and-a-half years."
The major-minor release question has plagued Microsoft since shortly after Vista was released, when company executives seemed to say that it planned to update its operating system on an alternating basis, with the major updates -- what Vista was to XP, for example -- every four years, with minor updates in between. By that map, Windows 7 would be a "minor" update, since Vista was "major."
Microsoft itself has given mixed messages about the follow-up to Vista. Many observers have interpreted the fact that Microsoft has been adamant about application and device driver compatibility between Vista and Windows 7 as proof that the latter will be a minor upgrade. But top company officials have increasingly been pressing the "major" button; Ballmer is only the most recent to do so.
On Tuesday, for instance, when Mike Nash, vice president of Windows product management, said Windows 7 was the product's official name, he called the operating system "evolutionary" but still a "significant" advancement. "It is in every way a major effort in design, engineering and innovation," Nash said then.