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Pirates Snag Latest Windows 7 Build

Windows 7

The pre-beta version of Windows 7 that Microsoft handed out at two major conferences this fall was uploaded to BitTorrent sites almost immediately -- enabling almost anyone with a little tech savvy to begin kicking the tires early.

Now, it's happened again, despite Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) vaunted tight-lipped policies regarding unreleased products.

Last week, at a Microsoft conference in Beijing, someone swiped a Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) image of build number 6956 of Windows 7-- the coming replacement for Windows Vista. The build has since been posted worldwide, according to reports by enthusiast site Windows 7 Center.

The build given out at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) and Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), both held in Los Angeles earlier this fall, had been numbered 6801, and sometimes referred to as "M3" for "Milestone 3" in the pre-beta development process. Similarly, the VHD image of the later 6956 build appears to have been purloined during WinHEC China, Windows 7 Center reported.

"Over 2000 leechers are already downloading ... just 3 hours after its upload," a statement posted on Windows 7 Center's site on Saturday, Dec. 6.

It's potentially a black eye for Microsoft ahead of what's expected to be a critical product release for the company. Despite its rhetoric and efforts to the contrary, the company's current OS, Windows Vista, faced criticism since its launch nearly two years ago. In response, Windows 7 aims to be much more stable, reliable, provide better performance, and require less of a memory footprint on users' PCs. Some wags have dubbed it "Vista done right."

Still, what damage there may be from the most recent leaked release is likely to be limited. Many people who download operating system betas and pre-betas off BitTorrent sites are enthusiasts willing to suffer a few bugs as long as they have bragging rights to be running the very latest version of the code, industry watchers said.

And, they'll be getting a look at the product ahead of many legal users. Public beta testing of Windows 7 is currently slated to begin Jan. 13, according to Microsoft blog postings last week.

Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, points out that while he doesn't quite understand the fascination of users who want to feel like they're running the very latest code, the constant leaks of Windows 7 code do illustrate an interesting phenomenon.

"The fact that there are so many pre-beta copies out there is a testament to how stable Windows 7 is already," said Kay, who got his own copy of the M3 pre-beta from Microsoft at the PDC in Los Angeles.

A Microsoft spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

A look at Windows' future

Microsoft routinely tries to discourage users from trying out versions of software that it hasn't officially released because it cannot vouch for the safety of the code, according to the company.

Some analysts find the warning worthwhile.

"I can't think of a better thing to put a Trojan or a rootkit into a bunch of PCs," Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com.

Still, the allure of getting a peek at Windows 7 may prove tempting for some, considering that Microsoft's plans for the OS are still unclear. The company has not revealed its overall schedule for Windows 7 delivery, nor has it disclosed any dates regarding beta testing of the new system.

Rumors abound that the company could target such an announcement for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, however.

In fact, the show begins the night of Jan. 7 with a keynote speech by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. In prior years, that keynote had been presented by Microsoft's chairman, Bill Gates -- now retired from day-to-day activities at the company. As a result, Ballmer could use his speech to highlight more of Windows 7's future or even announce the beginning of the beta a little early.

The only date that Microsoft will give out is that it has said repeatedly that Windows 7 will ship within three years after the consumer release of Windows Vista, which came on Jan. 30, 2007.

However, sources have pegged the release at sometime next spring, with the plan to have it available on new PCs in the channel by the beginning of the holiday shopping season.