Windows Vista moved a big step closer to completion today as Microsoft formally released Beta 2 of its next-generation flagship operating system.

"I just came from Redmond and I brought something for you," Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft's Platforms and Services Division, brandishing a box of Beta 2 DVDs before attendees at the end of a day-long reviewers' workshop in downtown Seattle on Monday. The workshop was held the day before the start of WinHEC -- the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference -- an annual gathering of hardware developers involved in products that support Windows.

While other recent builds have been labeled Beta 2, Microsoft officials have said those versions were part of the development process leading to today's formal release to between 500,000 and 750,000 developers and IT professionals. Allchin said Vista, which originally was supposed to ship by year's end, remains on track for a planned November release to enterprise customers only, to be followed in early 2007 by its appearance on new PCs and at retail.

Familiar look

For those who have followed the OS's progression from the days when it was code-named Longhorn through the initial beta release last summer, Beta 2 looks generally familiar. But Microsoft has tweaked a number of features.

For example, Vista will have three faces, depending on both the hardware capabilities of your PC and which of the six core versions of the OS (four for consumers, two for businesses) you're running.

The much vaunted Aero interface, with its semi-transparent frames and glistening progress bars, will only appear on PCs with sufficiently robust hardware that run either one of the two corporate-focused versions--Vista Business and Vista Enterprise--or one of the top-of-the-line consumer-oriented Vista Home Premium and Vista Home Ultimate. Microsoft also says that Aero will be more reliable than XP's user interface.

Low-end PCs running Vista Home Basic or Vista Starter editions will run a less glamorous Basic interface. But if you're running either of these lower end editions on a PC that is capable of Aero graphics, you'll get what Microsoft calls the Standard interface, which is Basic with some Aero features such as the increased reliability.

Along with its new look, Vista is introducing a new Microsoft document format, XPS (XML Paper Specification). Documents created with XPS can be shared with people who don't have the originating application but do have an XPS viewer; Microsoft showed an XPS document being viewed in Internet Explorer. While not nearly as full featured as Adobe's popular PDF format, XPS is intended primarily to speed up and improve the quality of printing.

Stressing security

Presentations at the Vista reviewer's workshop focused on several general areas where Microsoft believes the OS will save businesses time and money, most of which it has touted throughout the development process.

Perhaps chief among these are an array of beefed up security measures designed to ward off malware and hacker attacks. Among other things, Microsoft is pushing hard to discourage the widespread practice of having users logged in with administrative privileges, which lets them install software and perform all sorts of other activities that can put a system at risk. The reason IT staffers allow people to log in as administrators is because in Windows XP all other users are barred from performing even some extremely basic tasks, such as changing mouse settings.

Vista will only have two classes of users: administrators and standard users. But standard users will at least be able to make more routine changes--for example, change keyboard settings or install a mouse.

Microsoft officials admit they are still trying to find the right balance between maintaining security and irritating users with too many requests for administrator credentials. For example, some beta testers have criticized the inability of standard users to delete an icon on the so-called public desktop, one that wasn't put there by that user.

In Vista, Microsoft has changed the user authentication procedures so that users can add third-party alternatives--such as biometric devices--which can cause conflicts in Windows XP. Internet Explorer 7 in Vista sports an array of defenses, including the ability to divert efforts to change the Windows Registry or perform drive-by software installations to temporary folders.

Vista's firewall blocks inbound traffic except where users have specified exceptions; outbound traffic is permitted by default except where rules call for blocking. The OS wards off rootkits --spyware that evades usual means of detection such as showing up as a Windows process--with a feature called kernel patch protection. And the new Windows Defender anti-spyware software included in Vista can scan download for spyware, which standard users are allowed to delete.

Finally, the 64-bit version of Vista will not allow use of unsigned device drivers--drivers that Microsoft has not certified.

Allchin spoke at length of Windows XP's ongoing security problems, telling an anecdote involving Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer forcing him to personally fix a friend's PC that had been crippled by spyware. Of his expectations of how difficult it would be to make XP safer and how hard it turned out to be, he said, "I was naive?I was just humbled."

But he also seemed to maintain that Windows suffered from more successful security attacks than competitors principally because hackers focused their attention on it. "This isn't a Microsoft thing," he said. "Over a period of time, if something gets to a critical mass, it will get attacked."

Seek and Find

Vista's sophisticated search capabilities include enough smarts to take context into account. For example, a search for "wallpaper" returns as a result an offer to help the user change the system's desktop wallpaper. If you navigate to a folder and perform a search, Vista will only return results from that folder.

Vista lets you search files based on attributes such as author, file type, or tags (created either manually or by the authoring application). These search parameters can be saved to what Microsoft now calls search folders (previously they were called virtual folders); when you open a search folder you'll see the updated results of the search.

Another feature that got a new name: Windows Collaboration is now Windows Meeting Space. This feature quickly creates an ad-hoc network between several Vista users who can then easily view a shared desktop and exchange documents.

Windows Meeting Space is one of several features for mobile users. Microsoft says that notebooks running Vista will more reliably go into suspend mode--because the OS will be able to shut down balky drivers--and will snap back to life in two seconds or less. And Tablet PC users will benefit from a more personalized handwriting recognition engine, the company says.

Vista will allow users to access some information on their PCs through the new Windows SideShow feature, which supports auxiliary displays with navigation controls--a small LCD built into the external case of a notebook or a Windows Mobile smartphone, for example. While SideShow demos generally involve accessing Outlook contact or calendar info, Microsoft officials note that third-party developers will be able to create SideShow-aware applications. Similarly, independent developers will be able to write Windows Gadgets, little desktop applications similar to Google's Gadgets or the Mac OS's Widgets.

Microsoft has introduced some performance-enhancing technologies in Vista, including a feature called Windows ReadyBoost, which supports use of a USB 2.0 thumb drive as memory cache (cheaper than adding RAM). The new SuperFetch feature is supposed to speed up data access by intelligent memory management based on your PC usage patterns.

Vista will have some less business-oriented goodies, too, including its own version of Windows Media Player 11 with the new Urge music service and the new Photo Gallery, which lets you build photo montages complete with music and effects.

"We have made some amazing progress," said Allchin, who will be leaving Microsoft at the end of the year. "But this is just the beginning. It's the beginning for security, it's the beginning for storage, it's the beginning for distributed computing."