Microsoft revamps Vista testing schedule

The company opts for delivering more preview versions, instead of more traditional "beta" and "release candidate" test versions.

Microsoft has tweaked its testing schedule for Windows Vista as it tries to get the operating system update out by the end of 2006.

Rather than have a formal test version labeled "Beta 2," the company is now aiming for a series of test releases this year. Each will be aimed at getting feedback from a specific audience, Windows chief Jim Allchin said in an interview this week with CNET

An update to the current Community Technology Preview program, set for release sometime this quarter, will serve as the version that Microsoft wants corporations to test. The software maker said in December that it was targeting February for the next CTP release.

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Next quarter, the company will release a "customer preview program" that will give early-adopter consumers a chance to get their hands on Vista, though Microsoft has not said how broad that program will be.

Both forthcoming CTP and CPP releases will use "Beta 2" in describing the code, as did a December CTP.

Allchin, the co-president of Microsoft's platform, products and services division, said that the company has gotten all the necessary features into Vista and that no major capabilities have been cut from recent test versions. But while those features are all present, they are not necessarily being tested in final form.

"Customers are seeing the product in an intermediate state," he said. "There are still lots of bugs."

Vista marks the first time that Microsoft has gone to a timetable of more-frequent CTP releases. The idea is to get more feedback earlier in the process than is possible by having a schedule with only one or two beta releases.

The company had initially planned monthly CTP releases, but decided in December to make them less frequent.

Even with the changes to the test roster, Allchin said there is a chance that Vista could miss its shipping target.

"We still feel very good we can get it to broad availability this year," Allchin said, but reiterated that the product still must meet certain quality standards. "If the team gets in trouble about quality, I will delay this product."

IDC analyst Al Gillen said that Microsoft is on a very tight schedule, but still has time to make its goal of being on PCs sold in the 2006 holiday season.

"They need to have the product done by August or September at the latest. If they are not 'gold' by the middle or end of September, they might miss the window," Gillen said, referring to the "gold" release, computer parlance for finishing the software so it can be burned onto CDs and sent to manufacturers.

At the same time, the fact that missing the deadline means missing the holiday shopping season, should help keep Microsoft focused. "That's a lot of motivation," Gillen said.

As a point of comparison, Microsoft released Beta 2 of Windows XP in March 2001, before ultimately shipping the product in October.

Several key decisions about Vista have yet to be publicly announced, such as its exact hardware requirements, or in which editions the software will be sold. (Windows XP's standard versions are Home, Professional, Media Center and Tablet PC editions.) Allchin did say that Microsoft will not have a distinct Tablet or Media Center edition, though those features will be part of Vista.

Microsoft has said it will offer an Enterprise edition as part of its software assurance volume licensing program. The company has also been considering an "ultimate edition" that would combine the best of Windows Vista's corporate and consumer features. Other possibilities include a small business edition, as well as more standard home and corporate versions.

Microsoft has already scaled back Vista to try and make its 2006 release target. In August 2004, the company announced it was scrapping plans to include WinFS, a radical revamp of the Windows file system, in an effort to release the software this year.

Longhorn Server is also on track for release some time next year, Allchin said. The product will have a Beta 2 in the first half of the year and a Beta 3 version in the second half. Longhorn Server is the server version of Vista, which was also known by the Longhorn code name.

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