Microsoft has released the first feature-complete beta of its Vista operating system.
The Community Technology Preview (CTP), as the betas are now called, includes for the first time the complete set of deployment tools built into the operating system and designed to ease the creation of Vista images and the distribution and installation of those images on desktops. The February CTP also includes the first release of Vista's Sidebar feature, where users can link to mini-programs called gadgets. Microsoft is including a few gadgets in the CTP, including an RSS viewer and world clock.
The CTP, the fourth since the initial release in September, is the earliest Microsoft has ever released a feature-complete beta in any OS development cycle. Vista is expected to ship by the end of the year.
"We still take feedback, and there are still design change requests that are put in, and it is possible to see some features come and go," says Mike Burk, product manager in the Windows Client division.
Microsoft had planned to release a CTP every month, but skipped the December CTP, pushing it out to February as part of what would normally be called Beta 2. The February CTP is expected to reach 500,000 testers. It is available to those with subscriptions to Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) and TechNet, as well as those in Microsoft's early adopter programs.
For February, the highlight is a complete version of the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK), a collection of deployment tools. The kit has been included in previous CTPs, but only contained the XImage tool, which is used to capture and edit Windows Imaging Files (WIM).
The February CTP adds the System Image Manager and Windows Deployment Services. Together, the tools provide what is needed to create and edit OS images and deploy them to desktops. Also included is Business Desktop Deployment, best practices guidance for rolling out Vista. In the second half of this year, Microsoft will add the Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.0.
"If we do really well this time around [with Vista tools], then the next time people don't blink about deployment," says Manu Namboodiri, senior product manager in the Windows Client division.
The tools complement two new features of Vista: its modular design, which simplifies adding optional components to the OS, and WIM, which is a file-based imaging format that replaces the much less flexible sector-based imaging. For example, users can overlay the new image on the existing desktop image without deleting what is already there, and the images don't have to be tuned for specific hardware. XImage is the tool that is used to manipulate the WIM files.
Microsoft hopes the tools allow users to reduce the number and size of images, which is designed to make patching and servicing more efficient.
System Image Manager (SIM), a visual drag-and-drop tool, lets users configure the components in an image and build images based on deployment corporate-wide, by department or for specific job function.
Previously, administrators were forced to use Windows Notepad, a basic text editor, to build and manipulate OS images. The images created can be applied to desktops to install or update the configuration of the OS.
For example, Microsoft will deploy Vista service packs as components, and administrators will use SIM to add those components to their desktop images.
Windows Deployment Services replaces the previous tool in XP called Remote Installation Services and is the implementation tool in the deployment process that allows for a remote install.
The new tools are all based on the Windows Preinstallation Environment 2.0, which will ship alongside the February CTP and supports the abilities to configure Windows Vista offline, provide recovery options, and diagnose and troubleshoot system problems.
Microsoft is wrapping all these tools under a set of deployment guidelines called Business Desktop Deployment. The goal is to show corporate users how to do deployments in a repeatable and scalable fashion.
"We have had customers spend US$1,000 per desktop to deploy the OS, and we want to come down to the sub-$100 level," says Microsoft's Namboodiri. "We made the decision with Vista that we would provide deployment tools as early in the process as possible."
Other features of Vista include the User State Migration Tool 3.0, which includes full encryption capabilities and unattended install, upgrades to the Microsoft Management Console 3.0, and enhancements to Group Policy, and event and logging features. Vista also includes a new Task Scheduler.