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The long-awaited first beta for the Windows Vista client release, which was formerly known as Longhorn, officially goes live Wednesday, hitting some 20,000 technical beta testers.

Microsoft also Wednesday released the first beta of the as-yet un-renamed Windows “Longhorn” Server to a limited number of participants in the technical beta program, including hardware manufacturers, OEMs, independent hardware vendors, system builders, independent software vendors and developers.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant also made Internet Explorer 7 Beta 1 for Windows XP available to IT administrators, developers and enthusiasts for testing and evaluation through the technical beta program and MSDN.

PC Magazine gets its hands on Windows Vista Beta 1. Click here to read its review.

Greg Sullivan, a lead Windows product manager, told eWEEK that Microsoft invited specific developers and IT professionals who manage the technology infrastructure in their organization to participate in the Windows Vista technical beta program.

They are expected to rigorously put the software through its paces and report back bugs, incompatibilities and other issues they find. These testers represent a diverse range of companies and industries from small businesses all the way to large enterprises, many of them recommended by Microsoft partners, he said.

“This beta is designed for developers and IT professionals, since many of the end-user features will not show up until Beta 2,” Sullivan said. “This beta is really about the platform, about the fundamentals; it is a kick-the-tires test release for developers and IT pros.”

Microsoft is also making the Windows Vista beta available to its MSDN and TechNet subscriber base, which number about 500,000, but they are not official beta testers and so the expectations regarding feedback are lower for them.

“While we welcome their feedback, we don’t have the same expectations from the MSDN and TechNet side as we do from the technical testers,” Sullivan said, adding that while some of Microsoft’s partners, OEMs and large ISVs will get regular updates of the Windows Vista code, the beta testers will not.

While much of the documentation of the technologies in the beta leaked all over the Internet on Tuesday, ahead of the official release announcement, Sullivan said testers should not expect any feature set or other surprises in the code.

For more about what to expect in the Vista beta, click here.

The beta does, however, contain anti-phishing filter technology that works against an established list of known phishing sites from law enforcement and industry groups. Users will be alerted by an icon that notes suspicious pages. A message will come up to inform them why this page is suspicious or blocked. However, users will be able to access blocked pages if they so choose, Sullivan said.

He also confirmed that Microsoft plans to have the final product generally available for the 2006 holiday season. While exact system requirements for the operating system will not be released before the middle of next year, Sullivan stuck to the guidelines previously announced of 512MB or more of RAM, a dedicated graphics card with DirectX 9.0 support, and a modern, Intel Pentium- or AMD Athlon-based PC.

The Windows Vista development team has spent a lot of time on security, and the beta will include features like User Account Protection, which lets administrators deploy PCs set up to give end users only the privileges they need to perform their tasks.

Windows Service Hardening monitors critical Windows services for abnormal activity in the file system, registry and network that could be used to allow malware to persist on a machine or propagate to other machines, he said.

Click here to view David Coursey’s Vista slideshow.

The beta also includes anti-malware features to detect and remove viruses and other types of malicious software from the computer, while data protection technologies reduce the risk that data on laptops or on other computers will be viewed by unauthorized users, even if the laptop is lost or stolen.

“Windows Vista supports full-volume encryption to help prevent disk access to files by other operating systems. It also stores encryption keys in a Trusted Platform Model v1.2 chip. The entire system partition is encrypted in both the hibernation file and the user data,” Sullivan said.

Next Page: Protection for IE 7.

Internet Explorer 7 in Windows Vista Beta 1 also includes features to help protect against malicious Web sites and malware, along with support for tabbed browsing; a toolbar search box that includes AOL search, Ask Jeeves, Google, MSN Search and Yahoo Search; as well as shrink-to-fit printing of Web pages to automatically resize the page to print properly.

On the deployment front, Microsoft has worked to make Windows Vista faster and easier to deploy. The Windows Imaging (WIM) format provides a single file that contains one or more complete Windows Vista installation images, he said.

The Windows Pre-installation Environment enables administrators to configure Windows offline as well as diagnose and troubleshoot hardware problems before launching the setup process, while the Application Compatibility Toolkit helps administrators quickly identify, analyze and resolve any issues with non-standard applications being migrated to Windows Vista, Sullivan said.

Click here to read why Jim Allchin, the group vice president of Microsoft’s Platforms group, thinks Longhorn is a “big deal.”

Asked if Microsoft is still prepared to drop more features if necessary to make the shipping deadline, Sullivan skirted the issue by saying that the Windows Vista team is primarily driven by making sure the quality of code is as good as it can possibly be.

“When we first outlined our timeframe and expected vision for Longhorn at the Professional Developer Conference in Los Angeles in 2003, it was very ambitious and, yes, we did pull some features like WinFS [Windows File System], which will be delivered later. We talked about platform APIs then. It was a pure developer message,” he said.

“At the PDC this September we will talk about the platform and the developer capabilities that are still in the product,” Sullivan said. “In Beta 1 the testers will see a ton of other work that doesn’t fit into a neat package around that. There is a host of fundamental technologies in the product, and we are determined to get these things, like security and deployability and patch management, right.”

However, Sullivan cautioned that while those fundamental aspects that Microsoft is striving for are well-addressed in this first beta, “they are far from done” and Beta 2 will also bring significant improvements on the user side.

“Windows Vista Beta 1 includes an early look at the new user interface design and introduces a new organization concept called a Virtual Folder, which is a saved search that is automatically and instantly run when a user opens the folder,” he said.

Also included is a new visual identity, translucent glass with more animation, that is visually intuitive, helping users focus on the task at hand, whether reading a document, viewing a Web page or editing a photo.

Sullivan also stressed the amount of research and customer feedback that has already gone into Longhorn. “We have done so much listening and understanding of all customer segments, what it means to each of them and what their pain points are,” he said.

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