After much waiting, the first Beta release of Microsoft's new "Longhorn" operating system was finally released to developers and beta programme members on 26 July. Although the company recently announced that this new version will actually be called Windows Vista, the last-minute nature of the marketing people's change of mind means that the software itself is still plastered with the Longhorn label. Incidentally, this is merely the first Beta version – the final desktop version is likely to hit the streets in late 2006, with the server version coming along in 2007.

Unlike its predecessors, Vista no longer fits on a CD. I guess this is no shame (after all, most Linuxes come on multiple CDs or DVDs these days) but those of you who didn't specify DVD-ROM drives with your new PCs are in for an upgrade (though we'll talk about some new, alternative deployment schemes later). You can either boot the computer from the installer DVD (most useful if you just want Vista on that computer), or you can (as we did) run it up in Windows XP and kick off the installer to let it make you a dual-boot system. The main difference is that the installer only lets you access the drive partitioning/formatting functions if you've booted from the DVD – if you're running it under XP you'll need to use XP's disk partitioning tool to create and format your Vista partition. System requirements, incidentally, are an x86-based PC with about 3.5GB of free disk space and a recommended 512MB RAM.

The basic installer is very simple, and largely interventionless save for the usual user inputs of licence key, destination disk partition and the like. As with other Windows versions the installer reboots the machine, but even on a dual-boot machine it happily found the right partition to resume from after the restart. As you'd imagine from a DVD-based installation, the file copy process takes an age, but at least you can put the kettle on and leave it to its own devices. Note that if you're performing an upgrade installation, you actually get a new, clean installation with the preferences copied over from the old OS – no more of the slight wobbliness that used to sometimes happen with Microsoft upgrades.

So what's new and funky with Vista (given that we all know by now that the new WinFS file system has been delayed until the server version comes out)? First is WinFX, which is the underlying programming model for the new OS. It's a superset of the .NET Framework, the extra bits being needed (fairly obviously) to expose the new bits of Vista to the developer. WinFX is backward-compatible with .NET and Win32 applications, so your old stuff will continue to work, and just as you could back-fit the .NET Framework to Windows 2000, Me and 98, you should also be able to deploy WinFX applications to XP and WS2003.

Vista also reflects Microsoft's continuing drive toward distributed computing. Windows XP and WS2003 made a big deal of web services, and Vista/WinFX takes this penchant to the next step with the Windows Communication Foundation. This is basically an inter-system communication mechanism based on web services, which abstracts the core bits of distributed computing (notably getting data from A to B, security and authentication) and provides hooks in to .NET, COM+ and MSMQ (Microsoft's enterprise message distribution system). If you think of a system that combines Web Services, .NET remoting and such like into a single API, you're on the right lines.

The other core component Microsoft is trumpeting with Vista is the Windows Presentation Foundation. Remember when there was all that hassle about Internet Explorer being integrated into Windows, thus letting you access (say) a web page or a folder on an FTP server in the same folder structure just like they were all files on your local computer? Well, WPF does something similar for making stuff visible on the screen – instead of worrying what the media item is, it's much more a case of saying "here's something visual, display it like this" and letting the underlying foundation code do the hard stuff.

We mentioned earlier that there are alternatives to deploying Vista via the lengthy CD installer process. Managers of decent-sized Windows networks will already be familiar with WIM (the Windows Imaging file format) and WinPE (Windows Preinstallation Environment) which, between them, allow you to keep a set of images for deployment to your networked computers (e.g. via Microsoft SMS) and even customise the images off-line before sending them to their destination PCs.

Security's another big deal, unsurprisingly, with Vista. There's now in-built support for securing (or preventing) access to removable media and plug-in gizmos such as USB memory keys, and in-built encryption of filesystems makes life somewhat harder for those who (for instance) nick someone's laptop and try to get in using a boot CD to reset the admin password. There's also inbuilt support for Infeon's Trusted Platform Module, on computers that have one (more about this at http://www.infineon.com/cgi/ecrm.dll/ecrm/scripts/prod_ov.jsp?oid=29049) and you're given the option of being asked to confirm before admin-level function are performed.

So what does Vista feel like to the user? Well, the GUI and layout are very similar to Windows XP and WS2003, and although the icons have changed somewhat, it's still obvious what they mean. The location bar at the top of the folder window is represented slightly differently, and many of the menus have been GUIfied (e.g. you now pick from a menu of icons when choosing how to display the contents of a folder) but the menu and disk layouts are similar. Windows Search Engine is built in (much to my annoyance – I tried this on my XP-based Dell laptop and it murdered the performance) as is Internet Explorer 7. Vista has some basic in-built parental controls (that'll make some enemies in the third-party software market, then) and the security, AV and auto-update features are just like those in Windows XP SP2. (Incidentally, you no longer use the Windows Update website – updates are handled via the Automatic Updates application instead).

The first Beta of Windows Vista holds few surprises, then. The look-and-feel is sufficiently similar to its predecessor that users won't be completely lost, while the under-the-hood new bits are a sensible step forward from the now-established .NET Framework. Obviously there's a long, long way to go before the final product arrives, and so there will be a larger number of toys to play with come 2006 (and even fundamental bits such as IIS 7 won't be in there until Beta 2), but at a first glace Vista looks like a pretty promising bit of kit.

Supplier
Beta 1 is available only to registered individuals and MSDN developers; beta 2 should be more widely available when it arrives.

OUR VERDICT

This is the earliest of looks: Beta 1 is available only to registered individuals and MSDN developers; beta 2 should be more widely available when it arrives. We'll keep an eye on all developments as they emerge.