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Saturday, September 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft to release Vista test version

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft has passed another major milestone toward completing the next generation of its flagship operating system, but analysts said it is too early to tell whether Windows Vista will be ready on time.

The company Friday invited outside software testers to try Release Candidate 1 (RC1), a near-final version of its first new desktop computer-operating system since October 2001.

Microsoft has repeatedly delayed the planned release date of Vista, but now aims to get the operating system to large business customers in November and everyone else in January.

"We've made some [user interface] adjustments, added more device drivers, and enhanced performance," Windows Division Co-President Jim Allchin said in a letter Friday to participants in Microsoft's TechBeta and Technology Adoption programs, asking them to begin testing RC1. "We're not done yet, however — quality will continue to improve."

A release candidate traditionally has been software code that Microsoft considered the product good enough to ship to customers, but which still needs a final battery of live testing before it becomes "gold code" and goes out as a commercial product.

Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, said he doubts there is enough time for Microsoft to finalize Vista before November.

"Here's the problem: They think they're going to get this right in one release candidate," he said. But if enough bugs are identified and fixed during the process, Microsoft may have to go through additional release candidate cycles to ensure the fixes work and don't affect other parts of the code, Cherry said.

This RC1 milestone should matter to ordinary consumers because it's a sign Microsoft is "starting the home stretch" on Vista, he said.

Allchin asked testers to start working with the operating system as soon as possible. RC1 will be more broadly available next week.

"You've come through for us so far, and I'm asking you to once again put the pedal to the metal and send us feedback," he said.

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"It's out of Microsoft's hands," Cherry said.

The impact of another minor delay of Vista probably would be negligible for Microsoft.

"If Microsoft missed the date it wouldn't be that much of a negative because we're already at a low state of credibility" as a result of the repeated Vista delays, said Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research. He said Vista's schedule is "too close to call."

Many financial analysts are expecting Vista to miss the release dates and have built those assumptions into their predictions about the company.

Another quarter's delay of Vista could cost Microsoft between $200 million and $400 million in sales, Chief Financial Office Chris Liddell has said. That would be at most 3 percent of revenue generated last year by the business segment that produces Windows.

Additional delays could harm others in the computer industry more, however.

"The PC manufacturers, software developers, retailers, system integrators — anyone that sells or services Windows would be negatively impacted if there were another delay," Wilcox said.

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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