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Microsoft releases XP preview version

The software maker distributes one of the final testing versions of its Windows XP operating system to about 100,000 testers.

    Microsoft on Monday started distributing one of the final testing versions of its Windows XP operating system to about 100,000 testers.

    Since Microsoft released Windows XP Beta 2 in March, the Redmond, Wash.-based company has kept a tight lid on additional testing versions of the operating system. But, as previously reported by CNET News.com, Microsoft completed Windows XP Release Candidate 1 days ahead of schedule, despite the turmoil of Thursday's appeals court ruling.

    Release candidates are final testing versions before the software is sent to manufacturing and to PC makers. Microsoft designated Beta 2 as Build 2462 and the prerelease version as Build 2505. A second release candidate is expected in late July or early August.

    Release Candidate 1 will be distributed as part of the Windows XP Preview Program, for which Microsoft says 100,000 people have signed up. Cost is $9.95 to download the approximately 500MB preview release, or an extra $10 to receive a CD by mail.

    In weekend newsgroup postings, many Preview Program subscribers wrote that Microsoft had charged their credit cards for the software but they had received no information from the software maker on how to get the release. Microsoft will dispatch CDs to subscribers requesting them, according to the program's documentation. Those signing up to download the software are expected to receive e-mail from Microsoft with instructions, member activation number and password.

    Scott Newberry, a Windows user from Edgewood, Ky., complained that Microsoft was taking too long in notifying preview subscribers about the release candidate's availability.

    "Check the microsoft.public.windowsxp.beta.general newsgroup," he said. "Nobody who signed up for the preview program knows where to download it from, nor did any of us receive our username and password yet. Furthermore, Microsoft's Preview Program Web site states that they will keep members updated with newsletters (they released one) and that members will have access to a members-only newsgroup, which is yet to surface."

    But sources close to Microsoft said that the notification e-mail with user names and passwords were dispatched around 8 a.m. PDT.

    Microsoft also will provide a valid code to activate the software--essentially locking it to their PC configuration. Otherwise, Windows XP will stop working after 14 days. Windows XP automatically guides people through the process, which is completed over the Internet or through a phone call to Microsoft. Regardless of activation, the pre-release version stops working after 180 days.

    Sources close to PC makers said Microsoft has told them to expect gold--or final--code no later than early September. They will use this version to preload on new PCs.

    Availability of the release candidate comes just days after Microsoft and 600 partners, including retailers and PC makers, met in Las Vegas behind closed doors to hammer out Windows XP marketing details. While few details emerged from the meeting, Microsoft said that combined, the group would spend as much as $1 billion promoting the new operating system.

    Windows XP, which debuts on Oct. 25, will ship in two versions: Home and Professional. Basic features--among them Internet Explorer 6, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger and Internet firewall--are essentially identical. The Home version is the upgrade to Windows 95, 98 and Me, while Professional replaces Windows NT and 2000.

    According to the release notes accompanying the software, Microsoft recommends a PC with a 233MHz Pentium processor and 128MB of RAM. But Gartner analyst Michael Silver suggested a 600MHz Pentium III processor would be better for those regularly using high-end features, such as videoconferencing and multiuser login.

    "I would also recommend 64MB extra for each additional user," he said.

    Microsoft on Thursday said it would temporarily pull one of Windows XP's most controversial new features, Smart Tags. The XML (Extensible Markup Language) feature drew fire from Web developers fearful Internet Explorer 6 would hijack content from their sites. However, the decision to pull Smart Tags came too late for their removal from the first release candidate. They are not expected to appear in Release Candidate 2 or the shipping version of Windows XP.

    The first release candidate is feature complete, including support for HailStorm, one of the cornerstones of Microsoft's .Net software-as-a-service strategy. Through HailStorm, which relies on Microsoft's Passport authentication system, the company envisions delivering content and services to a wide range of devices, whether they be PCs, handhelds or cell phones. Passport authentication is required to use several features, including Windows Messenger.

    But the release candidate comes as a different hailstorm gathers over Windows XP. The appeals court decision, which found that Microsoft had illegally maintained its monopoly in Intel-based operating systems, opens Windows XP to attack from trustbusters and competitors. As part of its decision, the appeals court threw out a federal judge's order breaking Microsoft into two parts.

    On Thursday, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller made it clear the Justice Department and 19 states would look closely at Windows XP as part of the crafting of a new remedy. "The company's recent announcements regarding XP and HailStorm indicate to us that Microsoft may be repeating its efforts to maintain and extend its monopoly even more broadly into the Internet," he said.

    While Windows XP was not the focus of the antitrust trial, the government has broad discretion exploring Microsoft's business practices since the trial's conclusion, said Glenn Manishin, an antitrust attorney with Patton Boggs in McLean, Va.

    "An antitrust remedy is supposed to be forward looking, so the District Court is always entitled to take into account anticipated or actual future developments in fashioning the remedy," he said. "Since the Windows XP operating system is the successor to the OS from the trial, similar concerns could be addressed to Windows XP, HailStorm and .Net."

    Potentially more devastating, the appeals court found that Microsoft's commingling of code--combining Internet Explorer with Windows 95 and 98--"has an anticompetitive effect" because it may deter developers' interest in competitive products.

    Because of Microsoft's more aggressive bundling of new features into Windows XP, the company faces new challenges because of the court's ruling. Anyone who can show Microsoft's integration of features is anticompetitive in a way that protects the operating system monopoly could make a claim against the company, said Hillard Sterling, an antitrust attorney with Chicago-based Gordon & Glickson.

    "Plaintiffs are already developing new theories of monopoly maintenance based on upcoming technologies," he said. "They will use the monopoly findings as ammunition. In these plaintiffs' views, they're halfway home. All they need to show is anticompetitive impact."