By Benjamin J. Romano
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates today delivered new test versions of the "three most important Microsoft products," the first time the company has released so-called "beta" versions simultaneously.
Gates announced "beta 2" versions of the Windows Vista operating system, a long-awaited total rebuild of the product that runs most personal computers; Office 2007, Microsoft's popular suite of applications; and Windows Server, software code-named Longhorn that's designed to run the powerful computers behind networks and Web sites.
"Today's a milestone for us in terms of the huge investments and big innovation going into the next major version of Windows and of all the big complementary products," Gates said at the opening of the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle.
During his keynote address at the conference, Gates handed the first copies of the beta versions to an executive from Chevron, a company that is implementing all three products.
The delivery drew applause from the audience of more than 3,000 hardware engineers, developers and businesspeople.
The release of Vista signals that Microsoft is keeping to its revised schedule for development and sale of the flagship product, due out for large business customers in November and consumers in January. Earlier this month, analysts at the Gartner research firm expressed doubt about Microsoft's ability to meet the consumer release target, which the company already let slip once, missing the 2006 holiday shopping season.
The last time Microsoft launched a Windows operating system came in October 2001 with the release of Windows XP.
Beta versions of software are mostly complete but still need refining before they can be released for sale. Microsoft offers these early versions free to a select group of customers and technology enthusiasts, as well as hardware and software developers. They provide feedback, help identify glitches and build products to work with Microsoft's software.
The beta 2s of Vista and Server are available now to information-technology professionals with subscriptions to TechNet and the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), and to members of the company's Technology Adoption and TechBeta programs. In a news release, the company said it will expand access to IT pros who are not part of these programs "in the coming weeks." It said it will "invite a broader group of technology enthusiasts to receive a build of the operating system to begin testing," though the company didn't provice a specific timeline.
The beta 2 of Office is now available through a free download on Microsoft's Web site.