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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft releases test copies of Vista

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates signaled Tuesday that his company is on schedule to deliver a "triumvirate of major products," when he gave advanced test versions to a big customer at an industry event.

Gates announced "beta 2" versions of the Windows Vista operating system, a long-awaited total rebuild of the product that runs most personal computers; Office 2007, Microsoft's popular suite of applications; and Windows Server, software code-named Longhorn that's designed to run the powerful computers behind networks and Web sites.

It's the first time Microsoft has released beta versions of all three products simultaneously.

"Today's a milestone for us in terms of the huge investments and big innovation going into the next major version of Windows and of all the big complementary products," Gates said at the opening of the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle.

During his keynote address, Gates handed the first copies of the beta versions to an executive from Chevron, a company implementing all three products.

The delivery drew applause from the audience of more than 3,000 hardware engineers, developers and businesspeople.

The release of Vista signals Microsoft is keeping to its revised schedule for development and sale of the flagship product, due out for large business customers in November and consumers in January.

The new version of Office is due out about the same time, while Windows Server is expected in the second half of 2007.

Earlier this month, analysts at the Gartner research firm expressed doubt Microsoft would meet the Vista consumer target date, which the company already let slip once, missing the 2006 holiday- shopping season.

Some analysts said news that Microsoft is on track could stop the tumble of its stock, down more than 14 percent this year.

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"There's always fear versus greed, and the fear part is that they'll be slipping schedules, and this is them saying that they won't," said Mark Anderson, an independent industry analyst based in Friday Harbor.

Microsoft's last operating system, Windows XP, was launched in October 2001.

Developers at the conference who have worked with the evolving versions of Vista said it looks strong.

The biggest change they've noted is that recent versions leading up to the beta 2 release have had a lot more spit and polish.

John Ziobro, who writes software and develops graphics drivers at Fremont, Calif.-based S3 Graphics, said he was particularly impressed with the look of the new operating system, which has transparent windows and the ability to support richer media content.

Microsoft showed off some features during Gates' speech.

Mika Krammer, director of the Windows Division, highlighted personalized "gadgets" that can be added to the Vista desktop, displaying information including current weather conditions in Seattle (this gadget had the appearance of an actual wood-framed window).

She manipulated icons on the screen with her finger instead of a mouse, taking advantage of new features in Vista and a touch-sensitive monitor.

She clicked the Start menu and went immediately to a waiting search box, which queried everything on her computer — documents, e-mails, photos — and data stored elsewhere. The search returned hits from the Internet and networked file servers, all to the same results window.

Microsoft emphasized how the new functions of its Vista, Office and Server software work better together.

To Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio, that pitch made sense.

"It's been a long time between major product releases and it's really hard to keep that in the front of people's minds," she said. "Certainly Microsoft wants to be seen as delivering a unified, cohesive marketing and technology message. Doing a very widespread beta is the way to get that message across."

Beta versions of software are mostly complete but still need refining before they can be released for sale. Microsoft offers these early versions free to a select group of customers and technology enthusiasts, as well as hardware and software developers.

The recipients provide feedback, help identify glitches and build products to work with Microsoft's software.

The beta 2s of Vista and the server are available now to information-technology professionals with subscriptions to TechNet and the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), and to members of the company's Technology Adoption and TechBeta programs.

In a news release, the company said it will expand access to IT pros who are not part of these programs "in the coming weeks."

It said it will "invite a broader group of technology enthusiasts to receive a build of the operating system to begin testing," though the company didn't provide a specific timeline.

While the broader release of Vista is technically available to anyone, Microsoft said it's intended for developers and "should not be used in a production environment or on a main machine in the home. ... [It] is not the time the average consumer should obtain the code."

Office beta 2 is available through a free download on Microsoft's Web site.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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