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.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
8 min read
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.

The Vista for consumers
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

finishing Beta 1. So at one level I'm feeling confident that we were able to do that, which is something that in the past we haven't been able to do very well, but now because of the new processes we've put in place, we're able to run it in parallel. So I don't know. We are very focused to make next year. We're not going to skimp on quality, but we are very focused to make next year.

In the past, Microsoft executives had said there should be a way with Windows Vista to get a laptop that's both a Media Center and a Tablet PC. Is there more you can say about what flavors Vista will come in?
Allchin: No, no; not yet, not yet.

There's been a discussion of a concept called InfoCards that would store authentication details. Has Microsoft decided whether to include that as part of Vista, and what that might look like?
Allchin: I don't think we've made anything public on that yet, so no comment on that.

Microsoft announced the official name for this release of Windows--Vista--sooner than it has for some past versions. Is that to try and sort of remove the concept of Longhorn, which had morphed quite a bit from its original inception?
Allchin: No. No, the work was done on a name six months, maybe nine months, ago, and for once we were able to keep a secret. And so I actually consider this to be just great marketing in the sense that we typically pick the names way too late.

If you talk to naming consultant types and you ask them about operating system names, with Tiger and Panther, they would say, well, that conveys a sense of energy. What do you hope customers will sense with Vista?
Allchin: That it brings clarity, that it's about making things clearer, and it's pretty simple. I mean, we think that name, it can bring clarity to the clutter that you've got today, and the overload of information, and can bring perhaps a little vision into the future.

Microsoft is also releasing a test version of the next server operating system. How far along is that? Is it behind the development of the desktop OS?
Allchin: We are doing a server release at the same time, but again, it's really foundation-level, about the same sort of stuff I talked about at the client. It's sort of the mirror image of that. We came up with a way to componentize the system so you can run less software in certain roles. We don't have any of the final role management tools in Beta 1 or anything.

But in terms of who I think (will be interested), I think that if you're an IT professional and you're interested in the deployment aspects, then you're going to be interested in either the client or server, because it's the same basic technology that is being used there. So that's who I think would be the most interested. And is it behind? I don't know. We have a lot of features to put in both products still, so I don't know how to judge that.

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Microsoft is working on the OneCare antivirus package, including the anti-spyware program that's in beta now. Would you consider building some of those security technologies directly into Windows Vista?
Allchin: OneCare is a separate product. I think we've been very clear that we are going to improve security and safety into Vista in a pretty big way.

Is there anything in Windows Vista specific to spam fighting?
Allchin: I'm not sure if there's any OS-level changes. In Beta 1 we put in spam filtering in OE (Outlook Express). The filters are plumbed automatically. So, yeah, you can take a look at that in Beta 1.

What is Microsoft doing at this point, where are you in terms of encouraging software developers to write applications that specifically take advantage of Vista's new features? Where are you, and what are some of the next steps in that area?
Allchin: Well, the big next step is the Professional Developers Conference (in September). We will lay out the things, the features that we think people should take advantage of.

In terms of betas, is the beta for WinFS (the Windows File Storage update that was pulled from Longhorn) still timed for around the release to market of Windows Vista?
Allchin: Yes, currently.