A window into Vista

Microsoft's Windows chief, Jim Allchin, talks about the new OS, the challenges ahead and how Vista might help conserve electricity.

Last week Microsoft said that the operating system known for years as Longhorn would be called Windows Vista and that a beta version would be available by Aug. 3.

Then on Wednesday morning--a week ahead of schedule--the software giant said that the beta is ready to go.

In the four-year history of Longhorn--Vista's previous code name--it's arguably the first time Microsoft can claim to be ahead of schedule. Since first discussing Longhorn in 2001, Microsoft has changed the features of the release and pushed out its launch date several times. But there is little room for error now, as Microsoft is trying to have a final version ready by next year's holiday buying season.

Microsoft's Jim Allchin, the group vice president managing all Windows development work, spoke to CNET News.com this week about the beta release of Vista, its features and limitations, and hurdles remaining before the software's eventual launch.

Q: Microsoft today released the first public test version of Vista. What's the audience for this test release?
Allchin: This beta isn't really for even tech enthusiasts. This beta is to test out some of the capabilities that we've got, if you will, in the plumbing. We've got the beginnings for the virtual folders, but really this is plumbing.

The work was done on a name six months, maybe nine months ago, and for once we were able to keep a secret.

Most of the stuff that we would expect that tech enthusiasts and consumers will be interested in will happen at Beta 2. Beta 1 is not what I would call deeply interesting unless you are a real bithead. We did change the file directory space. I consider that to be a step up. It was more than getting rid of the word "My." (In Vista, the folder that was once "My Documents" will become simply "Documents," while "My Photos" will become "Photos," and so forth.) We are trying to simplify it and make it easier.

What are the next steps?
Allchin: We'll be pushing ahead as fast as we can to get Beta 2--no time on that yet. We'll get to the PDC (Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference, to be held in September) and we'll be handing out Beta 1 bits at the PDC, as well as whatever current build that we have at that time.

What are the key hurdles between now and the final launch, and what aspects are the most challenging?
Allchin: There are several changes that we are going to make that are going to take a lot of focused testing. They are things that customers have really wanted, but they are complex. (One of these is a feature internally known as LUA--Least User Access.) It's basically running users (in standard-user mode), not in (administrator mode, which makes it easy to add new programs and make other changes, but also to allow major changes to be made by malicious software).

If you are running as a standard user, then we have a lot to do in terms of application compatibility and also getting the user experience right so that users aren't surprised. That's a hurdle. We have most of the work done, frankly, but we expect there is going to be a time frame to hone it.

We have changed the way setup works, basically soup to nuts. We have a component-based setup now. We just need more time to get that tested with customers, which is why it's probably the most important thing coming out in Beta 1. I worry about everything. We have a lot of code coming in this summer, a lot of code. We'll see how that goes.

Vista marks a change when it comes to shutting off a PC and turning it back on. Today there are a variety of options: shutting down completely, suspending and hibernating. How do you expect that to change with Vista?
Allchin: We didn't turn on that new technology in Beta 1, that new way of approaching it. What we did in Beta 1 is, there is new code in the system so that the number of times that you have to reboot is minimized. We also put in new technologies for hang protection. What's coming in Beta 2 is we are going to encourage people to conceptually leave their machines on more. That's because we will drop the power usage...so that you will have a better instant-on experience. And then at the same time, when we do save and have to shut down, conceptually, standby and hibernate will be unified.

What we hope--this is not yet final, but what we hope is--you'll just mainly think about two states, off and on, and the system will do the right things, given how long it's been in off state. It may save out more things because there will be different levels of "offness," but to the user, all they'll see is off and on.


To win consumers over,
Microsoft needs to pay
close attention to their
needs and habits.

We've done some calculations of power savings that we expect. I saw a number that showed basically when 100 million machines are running Vista, the power savings around the world, it is unbelievable.

So I'm not going to quote those now, but we have made those calculations. It actually gets people pumped here, because we feel like, well, we could actually help society in a different way there, which is burning less energy.

This beta is coming just a bit later than the first half of the year target set by Microsoft. It does seem that there isn't much give in the Vista schedule. How much room is there for a couple of minor delays along the way while still making Vista widely available by next holiday season?
Allchin: Oh, I don't know. You're asking for a prediction that I can't give you. I mean, one of the things that we did is, we've already been running Beta 2 (internally). So we were doing that concurrently with

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