Windows Vista Beta Program Begins

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Windows Vista--the next version of Windows, formerly code-named Longhorn--hits a major milestone today with the release of Beta 1 code, Microsoft announced. Microsoft also released the first beta of Internet Explorer 7 for Windows XP (as well as the version bundled with Windows Vista).

The preproduction code being released today--several days before the August 3 deadline Microsoft gave itself when it announced the name of the OS last week--will be made available immediately as a download to 10,000 technical beta testers, most of them from the enterprise information technology and developer community.

Another half-million or so members of the Microsoft Developer Network and Microsoft TechNet (a support group for IT professionals who use Microsoft products) will soon have access to Beta 1, but without the support available to the official testers.

Beta 1 will not be available to the general public, at least in part because it lacks many of the user-oriented features Windows Vista will have when it ships in the second half of 2006, Microsoft officials say. "The whole canvas is not complete," says Greg Sullivan, group product manager in the Windows client division. "We've painted less than half the picture here."

What's Not There

Missing from Beta 1 are such significant features as a new version of Windows Media Player and support for tablet and Media Center PCs, Sullivan said. But Beta 1 does mark the first public appearance of several technologies that Microsoft has been discussing at various developer and customer events over the past few years.

Brad Goldberg, Windows client general manager, told reporters and analysts at a recent pre-Beta 1 workshop that Microsoft's design goals for Windows Vista fell into three major categories: instilling a "new level of confidence in your PC" by improving security, privacy, performance, reliability, and ease of deployment; bringing clarity to the organization and use of information; and "seamlessly connecting you to people and devices."

Of the three, improving user confidence was at the top of the list at the pre-beta workshop. "We have to nail the fundamentals first," says Windows client director Austin Wilson. Microsoft is determined to avoid "the patch management nightmare" and to seal off vulnerabilities "so that things like Blaster don't happen in the future," he adds.

Wow, Great Graphics

People who load the OS will immediately be struck by the whiz-bang graphics of the Avalon display engine. Icons are more detailed than ever and can be scaled to your liking; you get actual thumbnails of most documents; and if your PC has a display driver that supports Longhorn's graphics, you can enjoy the transparent window frames of the Aero desktop theme.

The search field at the bottom of Windows Vista's Start menu lets you quickly locate a program by typing in all or part of its name.
The search field at the bottom of Windows Vista's Start menu lets you quickly locate a program by typing in all or part of its name.
Search is ubiquitous throughout the user interface: Every window has a small search field to the right of the address bar, and there's even a search window at the bottom of the Start menu. Most of these search fields are context-sensitive: For example, if you type in the name of an application in the search field on the Start menu, you'll get a list of all matching executables, so you can avoid scrolling through the huge list you'd get by clicking on the All Programs button.

Windows Vista's Explorer windows embed a search field (top right); the bottom of the window displays detailed, customizable metadata for the highlighted document (in this case, Windows Vista security dialog).
Windows Vista's Explorer windows embed a search field (top right); the bottom of the window displays detailed, customizable metadata for the highlighted document (in this case, Windows Vista security dialog).
As before, Windows Explorer shows your folder system; but in addition to holding the folders you create, it comes prepopulated with a number of virtual folders that let you peruse documents by file metadata--information gathered by the file system--regardless of their actual location. For example, opening a virtual folder called Authors lets you check out all documents by specific authors, as identified in the file metadata. In another virtual folder, you can peruse documents according to keywords that you assign to files.

User Account Protection

One key new feature that Microsoft hopes will head off malware is User Account Protection. The OS adds a new type of user account, called a Limited Account, that provides fewer privileges than an administrative account but more privileges than a Windows XP guest account. People logged in as Limited users will be able to perform routine functions such as installing a new printer, but won't be permitted to install new applications or perform other types of tasks that malware tries to perform.

Internet Explorer 7 marks the IE debut of tabbed browsing. Also new: an RSS feed discovery button, located on the menu bar between the history and printer buttons.
Internet Explorer 7 marks the IE debut of tabbed browsing. Also new: an RSS feed discovery button, located on the menu bar between the history and printer buttons.
IE 7, which integrates an RSS feed reader and such long-awaited features as tabbed browsing, uses some of the technology behind User Account Protection for a protected mode designed to prevent drive-by spyware installation. Limited users can browse only in protected mode, but IT pros can set system policy to make protected mode the default for all users, including those logged in with administrative privileges. In protected mode, "the only thing [IE 7] will be able to do is write to temporary Internet files and the [browser] history," Wilson says.

Microsoft's goal is to move most Windows Vista users off administrator accounts. User Account Protection is turned off by default in Beta 1, but it can be turned on via the Start menu; it will be on by default in Beta 2.

One potential issue with this plan surfaced during the workshop, in a discussion of the Windows firewall in Windows Vista, which will be able to monitor outbound traffic (the firewall in Windows XP checks incoming code only). By default, outbound scanning will be turned on only in corporate editions of Windows Vista. According to Wilson, that's because if it were turned on in consumer editions, any application that needed to access the Internet would be unable to do obtain it, and a user would need to have administrative privileges in order to enable legitimate applications to function.

Better on Basics

Other fundamentals in Windows Vista will include faster and more secure startup, both during boot-up and when returning to active status from standby mode; improved user-mode (as opposed to kernel mode-based) driver design so that "a printer driver that crashes isn't going to crash the OS as well"; and an antiphishing filter (debuting in Beta 1 of IE 7 for Windows XP, but not in the beta of IE 7 for Windows Vista) that will identify suspect sites based on their behavior and will identify confirmed phishing sites based on a dynamically updated database.

Windows Vista uses image-based installation, so most of the OS is installed via a very large file as opposed to many small files. For consumers, this may not matter much, but it should simplify massive deployments by IT professionals, who can easily customize the image file by dragging and dropping in new files. Other IT-oriented features include an improved event log that permits administrators to specify tasks (such as notifying an IT staffer) to perform when certain types of problems occur.

The OS will have a new restart manager "that we think will reduce reboots by 50 percent," Wilson says. Windows Vista will also have new tools for diagnosing and dealing with problems such as crashes of specific Windows services, hardware failures, networking issues, slow performance, and resource exhaustion. For example, if a hard disk failure seems imminent, Vista will urge you to back up your data.

Overall, Microsoft hopes that its work on fundamentals will reduce the cost of owning and managing Windows by 25 percent, Goldberg said.

The general public may have a chance to test-drive the OS, but probably not before the Beta 2 release--and Microsoft's Sullivan said that it was as yet impossible even to guess at a date for the second beta. However, Microsoft still plans to ship Windows Vista in the second half of 2006. "There are good business reasons for us and our partners to ship in time for the holidays in 2006," Sullivan said.

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