Microsoft has released its first Beta 1 code of Windows Vista (formerly called Longhorn), the next version of Windows, schedule to ship next year.

The pre-production code is available 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."

Mac watchers may note that much of what is promised in Longhorn is already available in some form within Mac OS X. In a sense, Microsoft’s focuses within its forthcoming OS confirm that Apple has been on the right system development track within its Mac OS X releases.

What's Not There

The Beta 1 OS lacks significant features, including a new version of Windows Media Player and support for tablet and Media Center PCs, Sullivan said. But Beta 1 does mark the debut 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.

Graphics improved

Microsoft’s Avalon display engine makes for more detailed icons, document thumbnails; and on PC’s with modern display drivers that support Longhorn's graphics, users get transparent window frames.

Mac watchers may remark that many of these features have been available within Mac OS X for years.

Like Spotlight, every window has a small search field to the right of the address bar, and there's a search window at the bottom of the Start menu. Most of these search fields are context-sensitive.

As before, Windows Explorer shows a user’s folder system; but in addition to holding the folders, it comes populated with a number of virtual folders that let users 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

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 integrates an RSS feed reader and tabbed browsing. It 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.

Tiger echoes

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 that will identify suspect sites based on their behaviour.

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 per cent," 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 per cent, 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.