Expect virtual filing, new drivers, little else from Vista Beta 1, experts say

Redmond (WA) - If Windows Vista Beta 1 is indeed released tomorrow as indicated by numerous sources this afternoon - though which Microsoft refuses to confirm - developers and administrators testing the system can expect an advanced shell, a completely replaced video driver model, and a sneak peek at Internet Explorer 7.0, expert sources tell Tom’s Hardware Guide.

But we’re also told, many of the new features users have been promised - including the remnants of features that Chairman Bill Gates introduced to such fanfare in October 2003 - may wait for initial testing for Beta 2, whose internal milestone date, if Microsoft has one, is not yet known. In fact, one of the key purposes of the Beta 1 release may be to concentrate on a subset of key features, prior to testing the critical features that end users have been promised, such as dramatically improved on-screen rendering, and upgraded wireless connectivity.

"Beta 1 is not feature-complete - it’s not even close," said Paul Thurrott, the site master of the widely respected Windows Supersite and news editor of Windows IT Pro. Contrary to earlier reports from Microsoft and others, Beta 1 will not be a "public beta," on the order of the two beta releases of Office XP made available prior to that application suite’s commercial release. Instead, Beta 1 will be available to exclusive invitees and subscribers to the MSDN and TechNet development programs. However, Beta 2 - whose release date is not yet known - may actually be a public beta, and will likely include a broader feature set. Thurrott told Tom’s Hardware Guide that Microsoft is planning to release interim builds of Windows Vista Beta 2, as patches available for download online.

JupiterResearch senior analyst Joe Wilcox believes we may not know the details of Vista’s core features for as long as a few months after the Beta 1 release, at least not until the next Professional Developer’s Conference, currently scheduled for mid-September. Even then, Wilcox remarked, "you [won’t] really see what those features are until Beta 2. If Microsoft releases interim builds more frequently than it has in the past, we may get some sense before beta 2. But they’re not going to say a lot for awhile."

The reason, Wilcox believes, concerns the tricky tightrope of timing that Microsoft has to walk between now and Vista’s final commercial release, still scheduled for late 2006. In-between now and then, Wilcox pointed out, comes the critical holiday season, during which consumers will still be expected to buy Windows XP-based PCs in adequate numbers. "If Microsoft comes out too quickly with too much information," said Wilcox, "then it could affect sales of existing PCs, which is something that Microsoft wouldn’t want to do, and certainly its partners wouldn’t want to see either. It’s a delicate balance, trying to talk about some things that drum up some excitement, but not talk about too much too early. I think Microsoft learned that lesson from [October] 2003, when it did say too much too fast."

Illuminata senior analyst Gordon Haff has also been busy deflating some expectations about the richness of Vista Beta 1’s feature set. "The first beta is not going to be feature-complete," Haff told us. In his opinion, "the features list for the Operating System Formerly Known as Longhorn really has been a moving target. For example, WinFS - the new file system - was going to be part of it, and now my understanding is that it’s not." Other enhancements to what’s being called the "Aero" look of the operating system - to replace the "Luna" look currently used in Windows XP - are also uncertain, Haff believes, which leads him to ponder the open question of "exactly what features are going to be in Vista when it finally ships."

Paul Thurrott has been shown some of Longhorn’s interim builds throughout the past two years of its development process, and is aware of some contents of interim builds dated just last weekend. If the Beta 1 release reflects the contents of the latest interim builds, Thurrott told us, one of the features Microsoft touted in 2003 - desktop search capability - will be present in Beta 1 after all, though not by virtue of the completely rewritten file system model called WinFS, which Microsoft originally planned.

"They refer to it as a data organizational tool," Thurrott said of Microsoft’s characterization of "virtual folders," a concept that will most likely premiere in Beta 1. Currently, NTFS on Windows XP employs an explicit file system hierarchy, where aliases such as "My Documents" and "My Pictures" represent discrete directories. But in Vista, he told us, "they’ll have an All Documents folder that’s really a virtual folder. What it’s doing is aggregating all the documents all over your file system, regardless of where they are, and presenting them as a single view." This way, he said, a user could create a virtual folder containing not a fixed list of files, but instead a group of aliases of all documents that contain a certain word or phrase. "It’s a dynamic folder in the sense that, if you create a new file and save it in your file system," he continued, "that virtual folder will be updated immediately to reflect that change."

Vista Beta 1 is likely to support an entirely new device driver model, including for video drivers, that will completely replace - and supposedly make obsolete - the way Windows has handled device drivers since Windows 95. Previously referred to by the code-name "Avalon," but more recently referred to by the phrase "the new device driver model," Beta 1 will have the unenviable, but unavoidable, problem of presenting testers with the new model though without many of the new drivers. Naturally, the new drivers aren’t written yet. So as Thurrott told us, Beta 1 will have an XP-compatible fallback mode just to get the system up and running on existing equipment, and also in order to be able to install any beta drivers that do support the new driver model later.

From what Thurrott has experienced thus far, getting some of the old drivers to work on the new system is a pain. "If you have a Windows XP driver that uses an .EXE to install," he told us, "those seem to have some good chances of success, especially when you go into the compatibility mode and you tell it to run as if it were XP. But if you have a Device Manager base driver installed, where you actually have to go and find an .INF file, those don’t seem to work very well in the builds I’ve seen so far."

A particular sticking point, reported Thurrott, is with wireless networking drivers, which for the last interim Longhorn builds, appeared to him to be completely broken. "I have this weird suspicion that Beta 1’s going to ship without support for wireless at all," he said. He has seen reports of problems with numerous notebook systems, and has had problems himself testing wireless connectivity with three different PC Cards.

So will there be enough usable new features in Vista Beta 1 for general users to be able to test reliably, especially to be able to report problems back to Microsoft ? "The traditional reason why a company runs a beta is to test the product and get reaction," Illuminata’s Haff told us. "I think that’s the primary reason, still, why Microsoft is doing this." Because this is, after all, the next version of Microsoft Windows, a wide variety of users want to get their hands on it. But among that wide variety, Haff believes, "I think it’s probably questionable at this point how much business benefit there really is in terms of working with the product this early on, for most people."

Yesterday, Tom’s Hardware Guide discovered that Microsoft registered domain names containing the words "Ruby" and "Seven" along with "Vista," at the same time and in the same batch orders. Given the fact that we may still be one year away from not only using a fully-developed product, but truly understanding what differences it’s supposed to make to our work and lives, was it wise for Microsoft to release the name "Vista" so early ? Jupiter’s Joe Wilcox told us, "I think there was almost no other choice." Because of the many promised and since-retracted features, Wilcox said, "the ’Longhorn’ name carries a lot of baggage. ’Windows Vista’ in some ways allows Microsoft to wipe the slate clean, because whatever the pre-conceptions, connotations, etc. that are wrapped around Longhorn, they won’t necessarily carry over to Windows Vista."

Illuminata’s Gordon Haff doesn’t quite agree. Unlike the situation in advance of Windows 95’s release, Haff believes, the general public has a much stronger, more mature concept of what an operating system is. The challenge before Microsoft this time is that it must generate at least the same level of excitement and enthusiasm as it did for Windows 95, but without pulling the rug out from under the existing, mature base of working applications. "Even if they were able to come up with something totally radically new, different, that changes our vision of what an operating system is," said Haff, "it’s not clear that would necessarily be the right thing for them to do from a business perspective, because that would be a scary, radical change. At one level, Microsoft doesn’t really want radical change ; on the other hand, they want sufficient change to really encourage people to upgrade, and that’s a very fine line that they’re essentially walking, here. So Microsoft cannot start with a clean sheet of paper even if they were inclined to."

The Supersite’s Thurrott has slightly higher hopes but only slightly. "To be fair, I think ultimately what we get will be exciting, although we’re not going to see a lot of that in Beta 1." Consumers will appreciate the fact that Vista represents a major release, Thurrott believes. But the thunder of this news came and went two years ago already, and since then, he said, "they have scaled back some things, but I think to be fair, it’s not so much that features have been removed. They’ve taken certain Longhorn technologies and made them available in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. That makes people think that [Vista] has been diluted somewhat." Some of the security features originally slated for Vista, Thurrott reminded us, were actually implemented sooner than expected in Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1. So it isn’t so much the missing features - if indeed they’re missing - that’s the problem. "The problem is, they’ve showed us stuff, so now it’s two years later, and we’ve already seen it, so it loses some of its impact when they finally make it available in late 2006."

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Windows Vista Beta 1 may ship Wednesday morning

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