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Microsoft expands Vista testing

Company launches "community technology preview" program to offer interim updates of the upcoming OS between its official beta releases.

LOS ANGELES--Microsoft on Tuesday outlined plans to expand its test version of Windows Vista, the next version of its flagship operating system.

The company is launching a "community technology preview" program for Vista, offering interim updates of the operating system in between its official beta releases. Microsoft has increasingly been using such previews as a way to offer more frequent test builds to developers.

The first of the technology preview releases of Vista is being handed out to developers attending Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference here this week.

An updated community technology preview version of Vista is expected to come in October with updates coming on a roughly monthly basis, Microsoft said.

The company released Beta 1 of Vista in July. The final version of Vista, which has also been known by its Longhorn code name, is due out in the second half of next year. Microsoft has not said when the second beta version of Vista will come.

Vista, Office conference photos

Microsoft also offered developers a deeper look at the company's plans for the next version of Office, code-named Office 12. In May, the software giant outlined the broad areas it hopes to address with the new version of Office.

Office 12 is also slated for release in the second half of next year. The first test version is expected this fall.

"When these products come out in late will be the largest marketing event we've ever had," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said in his keynote speech Tuesday, referring to the new versions of Office and Vista.

In the keynote presentation, Gates showed off upcoming features in the new Office, including a "live preview" that shows how formatting changes will appear before they are actually selected.

The new Office will also feature a much broader array of server capabilities, some of which Microsoft will show this week. However, the company is not expected to detail how those server products will be packaged and sold.

Microsoft also plans to try to change the user interface of the Office suite so that it appears less like a static collection of menus. Instead, it will offer choices better suited to the task a person is performing.

Menus worked when Office programs only had a few dozen commands, Chris Capossela, a Microsoft vice president, said during Gates' keynote presentation. But they are no longer efficient, given that there are now some 1,500 commands in the latest version of the program.

"That metaphor has just gotten completely overloaded," Capossela said. He noted that when the company researched what features people wanted to see added to Office, nine out of 10 suggestions were features that were already in the product. "They just didn't know it was there."

Look at Vista
The technology preview of Vista, which includes a number of features not included in Beta 1, will be made available to a number of selected beta testers, as well as to members of Microsoft's MSDN and TechNet developer programs.

The company is also launching the Windows Vista Partner Showcase Program, which Microsoft billed as a $100 million co-marketing program to highlight third-party software built for the new Windows.

Gates said in his keynote speech that the combination of Vista and the Office update are expected to create a splash among businesses. "We see these two major releases (as) very synergistic, and a whole wave of corporations saying, 'We've got to get them on our desktop,'" he said.

As part the keynote, Capossela demonstrated some new user interface features of Vista, including features called Flip and Flip 3D that make it easier to toggle through a number of open windows. Flip and Flip 3D aim to solve the same problem as the Expose feature in Apple Computer's Mac OS X, but the Microsoft feature looks slightly different.

Microsoft is also bringing back the "Sidebar," a window pane on the side of the Vista desktop that displays RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, photos, and mini-applications known as "gadgets." Gadgets are similar conceptually to the "widgets" concept used in Mac OS X and in Konfabulator, a third-party program for operating systems that was recently purchased by Yahoo.

Sidebar was a part of Longhorn when Microsoft originally previewed the upcoming operating system in October 2003. However, the feature appeared to be on the cutting-room floor, having disappeared from later builds.

Microsoft is also looking for developers to write gadgets that can be displayed on a second display on the outside of notebook computers, a feature the company is calling "SideShow."

"If you go to you can get a tremendous amount of information on how to build those gadgets," Capossela said. (The page can be found here.)

Microsoft also showed off a feature code-named Meeting Space. It is designed to enable people at a meeting to easily share files with others on the same network subnet using a peer-to-peer Vista system, which Microsoft is calling People Near Me.

In addition to building better graphics into Vista, Microsoft announced a project called Windows Presentation Foundation "Everywhere" designed to bring a modest set of those abilities to older versions of Windows as well as to mobile and other devices.

The company is also set to unveil several other technologies, including Atlas, the code name for its new framework for building Web-based applications, and the Language Integrated Query (LINQ) project for making it simpler for developers to access data stored in relational databases and elsewhere without using Structured Query Language. Instead, LINQ allows developers to write queries using the Visual Basic and C# programming languages.

CNET's Mike Ricciuti and Martin LaMonica contributed to this report.