Windows Vista Beta 2? Pass the Maalox, please

Windows Vista Beta 2? Pass the Maalox, please

Summary: In about two weeks, Beta 2 of Windows Vista will be officially released to the public. And when it does, Microsoft will officially enter uncharted territory. I expect that Beta 2 will be reviewed as if it were a finished product. Those reviews will hit within days of its release, and they will be publicized more widely than any official Windows release ever. If you're a Microsoft product manager, it's time to stock up on antacids.

TOPICS: Windows

In about two weeks, Beta 2 of Windows Vista will be officially released to the public. And when it does, Microsoft will officially enter uncharted territory.

The last time the hoi polloi were allowed to tinker with an unfinished version of Windows was March of 2001. That, as it turned out, was an excellent time to slip under the radar. The once-powerful computer press had been ravaged by the puncturing of the tech bubble. A few pioneers were tinkering with crude tools for creating and managing blogs, but the big wave of blogging wouldn't happen until a couple years later. Newsgroups were strictly for hardcore techies. Not many people had the pipes or the patience to download a few hundred megabytes of OS code back then.

It's different today. Really different. The mainstream computer press has regrouped on the web, with advertising support and real budgets. Blogs allow anyone to express an opinion instantaneously, and thanks to sites like Digg and TechMeme, opinions get amplified and dispersed at lightning speed. And the target audience for Vista has more than enough bandwidth to handle its gigabyte-sized downloads.

This does not bode well for a complex, unfinished product like Vista. Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle received a Microsoft-sanctioned copy of Windows Vista Build 5381 - billed as a preview of Beta 2 - [update 11-May 9:00PM PDT: Although Dwight's post says he installed "the latest beta," Dwight tells me he tried to install the February CTP release, Build 5308, which is the latest build Microsoft gave him to work with. Sorry for the confusion.] and his less-than-sanguine experience provides a preview of what you're likely to read a lot of in the next few weeks:

I've now got two -- that's right, TWO -- notebooks with partial Vista installs on them. Fortunately, the original Windows XP installation is still working on both.

On one notebook, an HP, the initial part of the install completed, but when the computer tried to boot to Vista to finish up, it burped to a blue screen with a stop-error message.

On the other, a Sony, the file installation never completed. It gave me a vague error, tried to roll back the installation and failed.


No wonder Microsoft put the brakes on the Vista train. At this point in the beta cycle, an installation should not fail catastrophically like this for two notebooks in a row.

My experience with 5381 was considerably more positive than Dwight's. It installed on my Tablet PC effortlessly, something I can't say about previous builds, and just about every piece of third-party hardware and software I've thrown at it has worked. The only real sticking point is a cantankerous connection to the free Wi-Fi at the hotel where I'm staying this week. I've been using Vista for months, and I'm impressed with the progress I see in this build.

But my experience is different from Dwight's. And most people who download and install Beta 2 are going to apply the same standards Dwight does. They will, reasonably, expect it to be polished and free of showstopper bugs. After years of using "betas" from Google and even from Microsoft, we've been conditioned to think of a beta release as the soft launch of a product rather than a snapshot of a work in progress.

When Windows Vista Beta 2 comes out in two weeks, I expect that it will be reviewed as if it were a finished product. Those reviews will hit within days of its release, and they will be publicized more widely than any official Windows release ever. I fully expect to read about bugs, crashes, installation errors, and even data loss - in short, all the things that we used to expect from beta software.

For the sake of comparison, I took a trip in the Wayback Machine to early 2001 to see what people were writing about Beta 2 of Windows XP. There was almost nothing on the web, save a few news stories and previews from the mainstream technical press. The newsgroups, meanwhile, were filled with reports of crashes, failed installs, and blue-screen-of-death errors. Back in 2001, most of those problems stayed under the radar. In 2006, Microsoft won't be so lucky. If you're a product manager at Microsoft, it's time to stock up on the Maalox.

Topic: Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Any one that judges software based on a beta...

    Deserves to havce their machine catch fire and burn. And I don't care who made the software or what it is.
    • true

      but at least it should install
    • So, you are saying that there are NO standards for a beta whatsoever?????

      We have pre-alpha, alpha, pre-beta, beta, pre-release, and release designations and they mean NOTHING???? Oh, I forgot, we now have release candidate as well!

      So, if somebody starts trying to push pre-alpha code as beta, we should say nothing???? As long as they say "beta" we can't complain about Anything????
      • No, there are not.

        Beta is beta, it's not finished, it's got bugs, things may not be smooth in operation, etc., etc.

        As noted by the author, most installs go well. Obviously the problems reported by the other user is hardware related and finding those combinations making up the platform where the problems exist is part of the debugging process.

        Consider how many possible variations of hardware there can be in the Windows world. This is not like other OS's supporting a select handful of components and/or drivers. (Or limited function drivers used by many in the *nix world.)

        Anyone that signs up as a beta tester has to understand what they are agreeing to do, and that is to test *beta* code on their specific hardware.

        Where do you draw the line on what is beta or not? I've always believed that call is best made by the person(s) creating the code.
        • It's still worth talking about

          especially if you can't even get it to install or execute. The "beta" stage is the stage where you test for bugs in software after it's had its features freeze. How can you test for bugs if you can't even get it installed? (That last sentance reminds me of one of the last things Gus Grissom said before his capsule became engulfed in flames, "How the hell can we get to the moon if we can?t talk between two buildings?".)

          I agree it's wrong to pass final judgement on Vista's pending success (or failure) based on the beta, but it certainly is newsworthy knowing that the first beta has difficulties installing on certain hardware. It gives us something to look at for improvements on the second beta. If the second beta fixes the problems then that lessens the chance for delays, whereas if the problem persists that increases that chance.

          Now if there is a delay I can live with that, because as I've said many times I'd rather it be right than on time. But if there is going to be a delay, I'd like to at least know about it, and people who test the software are usually much more forthcoming than the producers of the software when it looks like there will be a delay.
          Michael Kelly
      • No there aren't

        They mean whatever the company that is releasing wants it to mean.
        You can complain all you want (as you often do), but there are no standards for what any company wants to call a beta.
    • Windows XP and 2000 are still betas

      So I'm judging them.

    • Wrong...

      There are no guarantees, but there are standards for a beta. An alpha would be expected to have major bugs. Not so for a beta.

      The point of a beta is to be able to test and find the remaining glitches that only an expanded set of users would find. I.e. the ones that are beyond the capacity of the internal test groups to find, because they involve the many real world permutations of configuration and coexisting software that the internal lab cannot realistically reproduce. These remaining bugs should be more minor in nature, because they should be more configuration and application-related, rather than due to glitches in the OS functions themselves.

      Since a beta is for testing usage in a wider set of scenarios, it must at least function under the major basic scenarios: it has to at least finish installation without dive-bombing. This is not happening, according to early reports.
    • Unpolished? I don't think so ...

      Unpolished is closer to the released version. The "polishing" comes with the SPs. Not fair to judge the released version based on a beta-- betas are buggy, we expect that don't we?
  • NEVER Beta-Test for MS!

    I made the terrible, terrible error of being one of those who Beta-tested XP in all of it's various formats for Microsoft under the false promise that, when all was said and done, we (the testers) would get a discount on the purchase price of XP. Needless to say, we got nothing. I thought that maybe I was, perhaps, an isolated case, but there are HUNDREDS of us that I have spoken to over the years who've had our fill of getting burnt by MS in SO many ways (the XP Beta was the final straw for me, even though, as a whole I like the operating system) and I went back to Mac. I would feel somehow vindicated if, even now, MS bothered to cough up a copy of XP given all the crap we went through completely re-installing our operating system(s) over and over during the testing process... But I have a better chance of having tea with the Loch Ness Monster, I am certain of it.
    • I was a Beta Tester for Windows Xp

      No Beta Tester was promised a reduced or even a free copy of Windows Xp for Beta Testing. When the Operating System was released to RTM(released to manufacturers) I was sent by MS a free copy of Windows Xp Pro. I was also able to download the full version for this. I paid no money for these copies.
      I never expected a free or reduced copy of this software but since I did recieve it free so much the better.
      I beta test for MS see the next os if I get somethng good if not still good.
      Michael L Hereid Sr
      • Beta-Tester Blues (Continued)

        If none of us were promised a reduced price or free copy of MS Windows XP, then there must have been a slew of mad-spammers sending many of the Beta Testers (myself included) an e-mail with the *correct links* to RC1 and RC2 respectively wrapped in otherwise false information. I do remember having to give feedback (of which I did quite a bit of) and was also never provided with any kind of "feedback sliding scale" and told that based on the volume and/or usefulness of my feedback would determine my being able to qualify for my very own, shiny copy of their "Golden OS." Initially, I was more curious just to see what the newest Microsoft OS was going to be because I had seen Windows NT and 2000 both and liked the direction they were going. However, I *was* (whether or not those who left feedback under their pillows and got a free copy of XP left by the Windows Fairy wish to believe that no promises were made or not care to believe my tall tale of Microsoft doing something a little shady around the edges) indeed promised something by a company that never had any real intentions of giving it for a project I gave a lot of very real time for.
        • You sound like a broken record!

          In 2 posts dated about 11 dys apart you said basically the same thing! I doubt you really got to test from MS (the real MS) at all! I've Beta tested ALL OSes since Win 98 & tho it IS not easy to keep reformating & reinstalling new builds it IS a much more rewarding experience than you portray it to be!!! Whether or not I received a copy of the OS at the end of the beta isn't the issue! MS DOESN'T promise ANYONE a copy of the Beta you are testing , hence my reluctance to beleive you were in a "legitimate" MS beta group! So next time you get this so-called "spam" I suggest you check out it's source cos, Me thinks you got SNOWED!
    • Top people giving feedback came first.

      People that gave feedback (news group active, bug reporting, specific instructions to repo., etc.) came at the top of the list for a free copy, those that gave no feedback, well...
    • I coudn't agree more.

      I beta-tested SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005. Lost two computers in the process and had to reinstall everything. No way I am going to take that risk again. The down time is not worth it. Sorry.
  • how do I get it

    how do i get it to test it?
  • Windoze is ALWAYS a beta test

    Sometimes its an alpha . . .
    Roger Ramjet
  • my goad

    you wuld think by now things wuld just work

    mabe a few bugs, but to make excusses is lame...

    has anyone ever thought yhat the move to a 2007 release has some real reason why...

    just lame
    not of this world
    • Spell check, anyone?

      My goadness...
      Ed Bott
  • Beta Max

    The Beta 2 preview review is already stale. We have already moved
    on. It's now time to review the announcement of the pre beta 3
    preview announcement press release preview. Fonts and masthead
    look fabulous and the document is remarkable stable.
    Harry Bardal