And just like that, Windows Vista rebounds. Years of delays, broken promises, and reduced expectations have dogged the Windows product team, which has been portrayed as hapless, indecisive, and unable to ship products. But the recent release of a surprisingly good Vista pre-Release Candidate 1 (pre-RC1) build, combined with internal information about the expected completion today of the actual Vista RC1 build that will ship in early September, suggests that the doomsayers suddenly have a lot less to talk about.

Given the lackluster quality of Vista's previous pre-release versions, I wasn't expecting such a sudden turnaround. But Vista build 5536, which Microsoft shipped late Friday, rights most of the past wrongs and offers major performance, compatibility, and fit-and-finish improvements, along with a heaping helping of bug fixes. Suddenly, I can use the phrase "it just works" in tandem with Vista and not burst into sardonic laughter. It's real this time. And, I have to say, it was quite unexpected.

You can find out more about the pre-RC1 build in my review "Windows Vista Build 5536 Review" at http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/windows-vista-build-5536-review.aspx . That build was given to technical beta testers and selected users over the weekend, and Microsoft MSDN and TechNet subscribers can expect to see it later this week. Most important, however, is that Microsoft will soon ship a true Vista RC1 build to millions of customers around the world. And if RC1 is anything like build 5536--and it should be--most of those people are going to be very happy indeed.

According to my sources, Microsoft plans to finalize Vista RC1 this afternoon. The build, 5568.16384, will ship internally today and will be seeded to customers next week if all goes well. To give you an idea of how momentous an occasion this is, consider that there were more than 825 bugs in the Vista RC1 build tree as recently as August 5. Today, that bug count is down to just 7, none of which are showstoppers or problems that would prevent Microsoft from shipping that code to customers.

So here's the schedule. Microsoft plans to ship RC1 publicly sometime in early September, probably right after Labor Day. Microsoft will finalize Vista in mid-to-late October and ship it to its volume-license customers in November. Consumers can expect to see Vista in retail stores and with new PC purchases beginning in late January 2007. A month ago, this schedule seemed overly aggressive, given the problems we were seeing in previous builds. Suddenly, unexpectedly, that's all changed.