Beta 2, which Microsoft said will be given to roughly 500,000 testers, adds a brighter interface with more graphics and colors as well as built-in support to simplify tasks such as online photo printing and managing music files.
Microsoft is developing three flavors of Windows XP--one for home computers, another for most business uses and a third aimed at machines running Intel's 64-bit Itanium family of chips. All three versions of Windows XP are due in the second half of this year and are built on the same NT core found in Microsoft's business-oriented Windows 2000.
The chief task for the software giant is to take the stability of Windows 2000 and create an interface that makes it easier to use than its current consumer offering, Windows Me.
"The whole challenge with Windows XP is to provide that power but make sure it's simple," said Microsoft lead product manager Greg Sullivan.
Microsoft showed off the new look of the operating system at an event last month at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters to announce the XP name. Sullivan said Beta 2 is the first time people outside Microsoft will be able to try out the new interface. The new software will be made available to members of Microsoft's developer network and the industry group TechNet, along with Microsoft's stable of internal and external testers.
The new software includes the first public beta version of Internet Explorer 6 as well as built-in integrated instant messaging and Windows Media Player.
One of the most notable changes is the "Start" menu in Windows XP. Instead of coming up with a list of nearly every program on the hard drive, the new menu offers basics such as a Web browser and e-mail program as well as the names of five or six of the most-used programs. A full list is available with the click of a button.
In many ways, Microsoft's effort parallels Apple's task with the Mac OS X operating system it introduced last week. The OS X is a ground-up rewrite of the Mac OS taking a Unix core but adding a simpler user interface and new graphics technology.
However, Sullivan couldn't resist a few digs, noting that for years Windows has included some of the features that Apple has touted with OS X, such as pre-emptive multitasking and protected memory.
In many ways, though, Microsoft and Apple are both trying to do the same thing--re-assert the importance of the home computer in a world where many people own a number of digital devices. Both companies are trying to make their products a hub for other gadgets, particularly those that deal with digital pictures and music.
With Windows XP, Microsoft has automated a number of common tasks dealing with add-ons such as digital cameras and CD burners. For example, users can click on a photo and have the option of e-mailing the full file or a compressed version, posting the photo online, printing it or getting copies from an online photofinisher.
Microsoft has also tried to further integrate rewritable CD-drives, making them appear like any other drive, with the ability to drag and drop files onto a CD and then burn it at a later date.
"We want to take stuff that was possible before and make it effortless," Sullivan said.
Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, said today's release is basically a good sign.
"It's a couple of weeks late but basically on track," Brookwood said. Microsoft was said by testers to have wanted to introduce Beta 2 last month, but the project fell behind schedule.
The big selling point, Brookwood said, will be stability.
"If it doesn't crash, that's worth something to lots of people," he said.
But Brookwood said that changing the look of Windows will help consumers understand that this is a bigger deal than recent transitions, such as the move from Windows 95 to Windows 98 and from Windows 98 to Windows Me.