Microsoft gave a sneak peek Tuesday of the next version of its desktop operating system, touted as the "most important" release since Windows 95, and showed off a new interface called Luna for home and business computers.
But a lack of details raised as many questions as the company answered.
At an unveiling held at the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, Washington, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates put a beta of Windows XP through its paces.
But while Microsoft top brass aimed to prove that Windows XP will be a centerpiece to its much-touted .Net software-as-a-service initiative, executives offered few specifics about new Web services that would emerge with .Net.
Instead, Microsoft focused on how the task-centred Luna interface will help people engage in activities such as online shopping, publishing photos to the Web, and sharing applications over the Internet.
Luna is one of two interfaces Microsoft will deliver as part of Windows XP -- the company also plans to allow customers to choose the existing Windows interface.
Luna will offer customers a more streamlined Windows look. It retains the Windows Start button but makes Internet connectivity, email access and interaction with system settings via the Control Panel more intuitive.
One Windows XP tester noted the dearth of information on how Windows XP will figure in Microsoft's .Net scenario.
"There are a lot of Web-enabled features and integration, but I don't really see [Windows XP] as a .Net play," said the tester, who requested anonymity. "Sure, there will be things like Passport [Microsoft's Internet authentication service] built in. But Windows XP has nothing to do with e-commerce, transactions and other infrastructure things I think about, when I talk about .Net."
But Shawn Sanford, group product manager of Microsoft's consumer Windows division, said Microsoft will include some .Net technologies as part of the final Windows XP. He said Microsoft is working on a feature called Dynamic Setup, an extension of its existing Windows Update technology that will allow people to obtain instant access to drivers and software updates over the Web.
Microsoft also plans to include a feature called Credential Manager, which will store different log-ins and passwords in a single place, as part of the shipping version of Windows XP, although the company may opt not to expose that particular feature to customers.
The company said Beta 2 will go out to testers during the first quarter, and it held fast to commitments to commercially ship two versions of Windows XP in the second half of 2001.
Testers said that Microsoft is telling them to expect Beta 2 of the product to be available for download from Microsoft's private test servers as of 19 February. Customers, partners and others who will receive Beta 2 on CD will likely receive Beta 2 a couple of weeks later.
Microsoft is currently allowing beta testers, under nondisclosure, access to a downloadable interim beta, Build 2428, of the product. That build may or may not be designated Beta 2.
The consumer version will be called Windows XP Home Edition, while the business version will be dubbed Windows XP Professional. Microsoft declined to comment on pricing other than to say it would be in line with existing Windows prices.
Microsoft executives said Windows XP will have hardware and memory requirements similar to those of Windows 2000, but didn't offer further details.
Company executives did not talk about the various server versions of the successor to Windows 2000, codenamed Whistler, at the Tuesday event. Server versions of Whistler, which will not be branded "XP", are expected to follow the desktop versions by several months.
Gates told attendees at the event that Microsoft expects to spend in excess of $1 billion on Windows XP development, testing and marketing. He reiterated Microsoft's claim that Windows XP will be a "major Windows release" and "the most important Windows release since Windows 95".
But testers who have been dabbling with Whistler alphas and betas have said that, at least so far, they do not see many significant advances in Windows XP beyond what Microsoft already ships in its latest Windows Millennium Edition for consumers and Windows 2000 Professional for businesses.
Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin demonstrated a variety of scenarios during the hour-long Windows XP preview. In particular, he highlighted Windows XP's ease of use, music and video management, and remote-user assistance capabilities.
"Windows XP is the system I've always wanted to build," said Windows veteran Allchin. "It's not just a Windows upgrade. It's almost a lifestyle upgrade."
Microsoft acknowledged last week that it plans to brand desktop versions of Whistler as Windows XP. Ever since the Redmond, Washington-based company moved to a product-naming convention based on dates, such as Windows 95, Windows 2000 and Office 2000, the company has struggled with product naming among the various versions.
At least one developer who viewed Tuesday's presentation was not impressed.
"This is so sad. They're just lamely trying to copy Steve Jobs' Apple presentation -- right down to the guy having a black shirt and black pants," said one Whistler tester who watched the Seattle event via Webcast and requested anonymity. "It's almost like Windows ME 2. Or as Apple might call it, Windows Me Too."
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