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Microsoft gives developers a glimpse of Avalon

Coding community gets early look at new graphics engine set to accompany Longhorn, the next version of Windows.

Although the next version of Windows is still about two years from release, Microsoft on Friday offered developers an early look at the new graphics engine that will accompany it.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software powerhouse released what it calls a "community technology preview" of the Avalon presentation engine for Windows. It's not a full beta, or test, version, but rather an incomplete set of code that lets developers test certain features and pass along their thoughts to Microsoft.

"It's basically a build that has a couple new features that we want to test out with customers," said John Montgomery, a director in Microsoft's developer division. "This is just our way of getting feedback."

Avalon was originally envisioned as a core feature of Longhorn, the next version of Windows. It will still be a part of that operating system, but it will also be made available as an add-on for users of Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

The main purpose of the new technology preview is to test Microsoft's ability to bring Avalon to its older operating systems. Microsoft has done community previews in the past, typically with developer-centered programs such as Visual Studio. The company created one earlier this year for its "Whitehorse" modeling tools.

Avalon is a key part of Windows' future, but it is something the average computer user will never touch directly. Instead, it's an improved method of dealing with graphics, designed to let developers write snazzier-looking applications.

So far, Microsoft hopes it will be able to bring most of the features envisioned for Avalon onto its older operating systems, Montgomery said.

The main difference is that newer graphics drivers in Longhorn allow for better performance and newer hardware. With Windows XP or Windows Server 2003, users might see slower performance, fewer shades of gray or less 3D animation, Montgomery said.

But, he said, developers wanted the support for older operating systems because it means they can write programs for Avalon that can be used by existing PCs, as opposed to only the machines that run Longhorn.

"The goal is give developers a consistent set of APIs," or application programming interfaces, Montgomery said.

The code Microsoft is releasing Friday is pretty rough, Montgomery said. Its release is limited to developers who subscribe to the Microsoft Developer Network, and the company warns customers not to use it even on a primary development computer, with there being every likelihood of bugs and a pretty good chance developers will want to reinstall their system once they're done using the Avalon preview.

A beta of Avalon is slated for next summer, along with the first beta of Longhorn. Final versions of Longhorn and Avalon are expected in the second half of 2006.