As part of his CES keynote speech yesterday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer surprised the crowd by announcing that Windows 7 is now available as a Beta test version for free download.
MSDN and TechNet subscribers can get it immediately, and it'll be available to everyone to "test-drive" starting early January 9th.
With this move it's clear Microsoft is keen to put Vista behind it  as soon as possible, with painful memories of the "Vista-ready" fiasco--where PCs were deemed fit to run Vista as long as you didn't want to run the whole glossy OS, which high-end PCs were needed for--and overly-demanding security procedures. Ballmer wants to get the public thinking about its next OS, which he dubbed the "best version of Windows ever," as you may have expected him to. More interestingly he also highlighted that Microsoft's put in "all the right ingredients -- simplicity, reliability and speed" and has been "working hard to get it right and to get it ready." And that sounds like Microsoft's at least been trying to make up for Vista errors.
The new OS's strengths are supposedly security, a streamlined design intended to make "every day" computing tasks simpler, a more central role for media players/entertainment software and support for multitouch.
Microsoft's timing with this Beta is understandable: Windows 7 can be seen as a slimmed-down, uprated Vista, and Apple's slimmed-down, up-rated OS X "Snow Leopard" is also due to arrive imminently--despite not receiving a mention during Phil Schiller's own keynote address at MacWorld.