Early death for 98 as MS pushes WinXP – public beta confirmed

One of those crummy preview program things, actually, and there'll likely be a 'handling charge'...

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Windows XP, the next generation of Windows, got its first public preview today at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where Bill Gates rang the changes (not) by describing it as "the most advanced Windows ever." Those itching for a simultaneous unleashing of Beta 2 were however disappointed - the announcement itself says it will ship to a few people "in the next month," while in one of those tedious faux interviews with itself Microsoft has taken to posting in its site press section, general manager John Frederiksen will commit only to "before the end of the first quarter."

Beta 2 will feature the new user interface, Luna, which also featured in today's presentation. As yet The Register is unenlightened on the precise features of this beast, first because the link to the newly-unveiled Windows XP section of the Microsoft site didn't seem to work earlier, and second because now it's working the preview shots don't seem to be there yet. Microsoft however describes it as a "fresh new look [which] extends the personal computing experience by uniting PCs, devices and services like never before."

More specifically, it uses a task-based approach, and drilling down to a bit of detail Frederiksen says the new start menu has been designed "as the true launching point for users to get started and do everything they want on their PC." Actually building a truly task-based UI and sticking to it is however a serious challenge, not helped by the inevitability that a lot of users would hate it, and would need to be evangelised. Plus if the interface was really task-based the ISVs would have to be talked into abandoning the applications-based approach.

But maybe it's not exactly task-based at all, rather like the way many terms used by Microsoft turn out not quite to mean what you previously thought they did. Frederiksen maybe gives the game away when he says: "We built intelligence into the design so the applications that are used most frequently will 'bubble up' and be quickly and easily accessible." If it's task-based then the tasks bubble up, not the apps, John - at best, this sounds like Microsoft is designing some kind of halfway house.

But it's worth bearing in mind that as Microsoft apparently doesn't intend to ship the new UI until Beta 2, what is available as screenshot (microsoft.com morlocks permitting) and what is said about the UI now is certainly not the complete story. The decision to restrict Beta 2 initial circulation to "a select group of Microsoft customers, partners and beta testers" is also a signal that Microsoft is unsure how far it should go in this rev.

The spin put on that was that Microsoft would restrict the beta in order to avoid repeating the experience of earlier builds, which leaked onto the Web within days of release. The more probable reason, however, is that the company wants to test the waters with a few people to see how far it makes sense to go, and work on getting the message across, rather than being beaten up by tens of thousands of irate users in a widespread, public beta.

A public beta release some time after Beta 2 was mooted last month by CRN, which has more recently been making the running with alleged release schedules. But although CRN's poop is probably genuine Microsoft poop, it's likely what Microsoft would like to happen, not necessarily what will actually happen. For what it's worth, the projected date for Beta 2 is February 28th, nicely inside the within the next month/before the end of Q1 window. This will be followed by Release Candidate 1 in late March, and RC 2 on the weirdly precise April 24th, with Release to Manufacturing on May 30th. So ship in second half, on target.

You'd probably not be wrong if you saw the thumbprint of Jim Allchin, back in the saddle at today's announcement and a man who likes to drive schedules hard, in that route map. You should also note that it makes it clear that Microsoft intends it to be largely done and dusted by the release of Beta 2 - there just isn't space in the schedule for major engineering work. Nor indeed, for a genuine widespread public beta. The new XP section of the site does however invite you to register for the Preview Program, and stresses that by signing up you'll be under to obligation to purchase anything. Which kind of suggests, as with Win2k, it'll cost. Also as with Windows 2000 the schedule is too tight for it to be anything other than a simple publicity stunt designed to get the hype going among tech wannabes early.

One last point worth chewing at today - industry leaders, who always "rally" in support of new Microsoft operating systems, seem to be rallying early this year. Mike Capellas, CEO of notorious Redmond stoogecorp Compaq, rallied tediously (he's going to ship it when it's out - wow) but Circuit City CEO Alan McCollough was more interesting.

When XP ships all Windows PCs Circuit City sells will run it, and "beginning today" (you didn't know about this before, Alan?) "we're going to ensure that all Windows-based PCs we sell are configured to allow for an easy transition to Windows XP."

Two things are worth noting about this. First of all, we can presume that Microsoft is being really persuasive behind the scenes to engineer as fast and total a switch to XP as it can. The speedy extermination of Windows 98/Me and Windows 2000 at least at retail, and fairly swiftly following in OEM and corporate sales, is the logical goal and consequence. Windows NT? Get real...

The second point is that prior to the release PCs are going to be made 'XP-ready.' There's an element of making the hardware work with the software here, rather than vice versa. XP will have pretty specific hardware requirements, and rather than was the case with 95, where the aim was to get it to run properly on existing hardware, this time around Microsoft seems keen on aiming for new hardware. A couple of months back a Microserf even blurted to The Register that the company saw it as a new PC product, not an upgrade one. But he went to ground when we asked for elaboration, so he probably said too much. ®

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