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Windows Vista Beta Arrives

Microsoft has to prove that Vista's visual polish can make PCs easier to use and close a perceived elegance gap with Apple Computer's Mac OS X.

Microsoft this morning released the first widely available test version of Windows Vista to about 10,000 customers who'll put the company's next PC operating system through its paces in coming weeks.

Microsoft is marketing Vista, due in time for Christmas 2006, as the most visually attractive version of Windows yet, with see-through panes, translucent folders, and icons that show documents' contents, according to a demonstration Microsoft gave this week. Now Microsoft has to prove that Vista's visual polish can make PCs easier to use and close a perceived elegance gap with Apple Computer's Mac OS X.

The testers for Windows Vista beta 1 (which is the new name for Longhorn) will be charged with finding problems and reporting them to Microsoft, says Greg Sullivan, Windows' client lead product manager. Another half-million developers who've signed up for access to Microsoft's technical Web sites will also get to install the code.

Vista will bring big advances in users' ability to find and organize their files, hook up easily to networks, and ward off spyware and viruses, Sullivan says. But some of Vista's most anticipated features, like the ability to sort photos by their contents or read RSS feeds from Windows apps, will have to wait for a subsequent beta 2 release.

One of the top selling points for upgrading to Vista when it arrives late next year will be its visual styling, which Microsoft says can help users focus on what they're doing and find things on their PCs more easily. In an age of multiplying files, photos, electronic calendars, and other information, features such as translucent folders that show their contents and see-through window panes could make it easier to keep things straight. "It's a new level of confidence in your PC," Sullivan says.

What customers will see in Vista are new features that are supposed to make it easier to perform everyday tasks such as installing software, turning on parental controls, and connecting a work laptop to a home network. Vista will include anti-spyware technology Microsoft acquired when it bought Giant Software last year and an enhanced firewall that warns users if their PC is being turned into a "zombie" for sending spam. On the browsing front, beta 1 includes a new version of the Internet Explorer Web browser that lets users open Web pages in tabs. Eventually, it will include security features such as blocking known phishing sites or warning users about suspected ones. IE 7 also includes the ability to save news stories and blogs published in Really Simple Syndication format to a folder, but a planned database that would made RSS feeds available to software applications isn't included in the beta.

Virtual Folders

(click image for larger view)

Where Vista appears to depart most strikingly from current versions of Windows, however, is in its ability to use its new search engine and graphical capabilities to organize files. Sullivan demonstrated the ability to search for a program or utility from the Windows start menu, control panel, or folders by typing in part of its name. Users can also find files viewing thumbnail-sized icons that show what's actually written in a document or presented on a PowerPoint slide. And beta 1 includes the ability to create translucent "virtual folders" that organize files by keywords and show their contents, and the ability to look at thumbnail images of a file or folder that show what its first page looks like.

Microsoft has a lot riding on this release. Vista is scheduled to arrive five years after the release of Windows XP, which came out back in October 2001. Microsoft last week reported that desktop Windows generated $12.23 billion in revenue and $9.44 billion in operating income during its 2005 fiscal year ended June 30. Overall, Microsoft reported revenue of $39.79 billion for the year. The company plans to give financial analysts more guidance on the new 2006 fiscal year at a meeting in Redmond, Wash., Thursday.

Will customers buy Microsoft's message? The graphical advances in Vista, powered by a set of new technologies called Avalon, will provide "slicker presentation versus a fundamental user experience change," says Rob Enderle, principal of market-research firm the Enderle Group. "But [Vista] appears to make things more discoverable," he says. "It's a huge advancement in search." In Vista, users can find files and programs by typing in their names from nearly anywhere in Windows.

Windows XP users only make use of a fraction of the operating system's capabilities, and many aren't even aware of features for creating video and slideshows in Microsoft's current operating system, Enderle says. Apple's Mac OS X, on the other hand, has made multimedia features "vastly more discoverable." Avalon will give Windows "a more Mac-like feel, and that will advance through the beta process," he says. "If you've got the graphics capability, it's going to pump up your system."

Microsoft executives have said Apple copied some of the ideas the company plans for Vista when Microsoft previewed them at a conference two years ago, Enderle says. Microsoft's goal is to surpass Mac OS X in usability as Apple concentrates on a transition in its computers from IBM chips to those made by Intel. "To a certain extent, Microsoft's betting that Apple's going to be tied to getting [OS 10.4] Tiger-like functionality to execute on Intel, and they won't be able to enhance the user interface. I'm not convinced that's a good bet."

Says Microsoft manager Sullivan: "We came out a little early two years ago showing the direction we're headed." But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has urged the Windows team to concentrate on shipping its product and addressing customers' needs, not on competing with Apple, he adds.

Some Microsoft watchers say Windows could do even more than it already does. "In many ways, Avalon is a technology in search of a problem," says Greg DeMichillie, an analyst at market-research company Directions on Microsoft. "Microsoft's biggest problem is they have the legacy ball and chain." The look of Office and other apps can't depart too radically from what's already in Windows--even if the graphics technology exists--lest old apps look out of place or corporate buyers get scared off.

"Why do we have basically the same UI since Windows 95? It's not because Microsoft thinks this is the ultimate user interface. It's because they didn't answer the question of what an old version of Office would look like," DeMichillie says. "What do old apps look like in Longhorn? They've got to answer that question."

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