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The Road to Gold (Part Three)

On February 5, 2001, I flew to Seattle to preview Windows XP Beta 2 and the user interfaces changes Microsoft had planned for that release. The Whistler Desktop Beta 2 Technical Workshop consisted of two days of intensive hands-on overview featuring face time with the Microsoft executives, program managers, developers and product managers actually working on the product. It was an invaluable experience, given the number of changes Microsoft had made in this version.

The group of 20 technical journalists who showed up for the event were the first outside of Microsoft to see the new Windows XP user interface, which replaces the old gray Windows 95 interface with one that is much more colorful and exciting. Microsoft wasn't yet ready with XP code for us, unfortunately, so we walked away with the promise of pre-Beta 2 code and various other updates. Since we didn't have actual code with the new UI yet--and Microsoft wouldn't yet allow screenshots--I scanned the following image from a pad of notepaper we got and forwarded it to colleagues. Here it is, folks, the very first "screenshot" of the Windows XP user interface, sort of, published here for the first time.

Not coincidentally, I was able to publish the new Windows XP flag logo as well, thanks to that same pad of paper. You can only work with what you've got!

The day before the workshop began, Microsoft publicly announced the final names for Whistler and Office 10. "These breakthrough versions of Windows and Office will give people the most powerful end-to-end computing experiences ever available," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said. "The coming generation of Windows XP and Office XP will let customers communicate and collaborate more effectively, be more creative and productive, and have more fun with technology." Gates notes that Windows XP and Office XP will lead the way to .NET. "Now, instead of having individual applications on each device, users will get a rich experience that spans all their devices. This evolution from applications to experiences starts with Windows XP and Office XP."

Most alarming to me, however, was the corroboration by my sources, just hours before I arrive on campus for the technical preview, that Windows XP would sport a new user interface. So before I had to sign an NDA, I posted a story on WinInfo about the change. "To prevent leaks, testers are completely in the dark," a source told me yesterday. "Luna will come with Beta 2, but I can't say more than that," another source said cryptically. When I arrived at the campus that day and was shown the new UI, program manager Iain McDonald pulled me aside to find out whether I had ever seen the new UI before that day. When I said no, he proceeded to high-five members of the Windows User Experience team. Job well done, apparently.

Anyway, the wealth of information we received at the technical workshop resulted in numerous articles on the SuperSite for Windows, though we were required to wait for the release of Beta 2 to publish any of it. But I wrote at least three Technology Showcases on the flights home from Seattle three days later, excited by the changes I had seen, with many more added in the coming weeks. Little did I know at the time that Beta would eventually ship a full month later than expected.

About a week after we left Redmond, on February 13, Microsoft released Windows XP build 2428 to testers and reviewers. This was one of the builds that had been shown off at the technical workshop, and it was the first external build to feature to new UI. It was also the build that arrived on loaner laptops provided by Compaq. At the time, I was under an NDA, so I didn't post any images of the build. However, here for the first time are some of my many shots of build 2428, showing off some of the new stuff we had seen earlier in that technical preview. If you've been using Windows XP, however, most of them probably look familiar now.

Windows XP interim build 2428: A first look at the new UI

February 13 was also the day that Microsoft revealed the Windows XP user interface publicly, at an event Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle. My exclusive look at the event--courtesy of Joe Jones, who went in my place--was published on the SuperSite.

Two days later, Microsoft provided me with a number of exclusive screenshots of Windows Media Player 8--later renamed to Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP), which were published immediately on the SuperSite. The company later sent two code updates for MPXP to the press, so that we could evaluate the new release, on February 15, and again on March 28. MPXP would not ship in Windows XP Beta 2 (which instead featured an older version of Media Player 8 that was visually identical to WMP7), but testers finally did get it, eventually, in the first post-Beta 2 interim build.

On February 19, I reported that Microsoft had slipped the release of Windows XP Beta 2 from late February to mid-March. "We are not hitting our goals for Whistler Beta 2," wrote Microsoft program manager Iain McDonald in an email to the Windows XP team. "This being the case, we're moving the release of Beta 2 to March 14. No one ever remembers a 2-week slip. Now is the time for us to be aggressive and drive the intensity. March is gut-check month because if we don't do this now, we'll miss the runway." On February 20, the Compaq loaner laptop arrived with build 2428, but I had already installed the build on several systems and had enough laptops, so I eventually forwarded the machine to someone else at the magazine.

As the press was seeded with XP beta code containing the new UI, a number of complaints began turning up. Some said the new UI widgets were too big, or too garish. On February 23, I reported that Microsoft had already corrected the number-one complaint about its new XP UI. The company considerably shrunk down the default size of the toolbar and its icons from the versions shown at the Experience Music Project (EMP) event. Build 2428, the build that Microsoft belatedly gave to technical beta testers the week before, contained the older, larger toolbar. But Beta 2 would feature the new toolbar, already available in Microsoft's internal builds of Windows XP.

On February 24, I reported that Microsoft had slipped the release of Whistler Server past October to the end of 2001. The company later corroborated this change when it publicly disconnected the schedule for Whistler Server from Windows XP.

Interim build 2446 arrived in testers eager hands on March 5, 2001. This build featured numerous UI tweaks, updated Help and Support content for digital media tasks, updates to Remote Desktop Connection, and more. It was also the first to include the Beta 2 README. Build 2446 was the start of a number of quick, successive interim builds as Microsoft rolled toward Beta 2, but because we were under NDA until Beta 2, I haven't published any of these shots until now.

Windows XP interim build 2446

On March 11, I reported that Windows XP Beta 2 had slipped yet another week and was now due March 21. This was the second such delay for the crucial final beta of the next version of Windows, which Microsoft originally had planned to ship by March 1. My sources told me, however, that Windows XP was in good shape overall and that Microsoft was simply fixing a small group of remaining bugs that the company deemed critical for that release.

On March 19, testers received build 2462. This build featured a new "Forgotten Password Wizard" and various other tweaks, as well as an annoying "Search" pane behavior that was corrected in later build (see show below). Build 2462a--a minor update the delayed the release over that weekend--was eventually declared as Beta 2.

Windows XP interim build 2462 ... soon to be Beta 2

At the WinHEC tradeshow on March 26, Bill Gates finally announced the release of Windows XP Beta 2. "Windows XP represents the realization of a dream that Microsoft has had for a long time, and that is to take the very rich and powerful code base that we?ve built around Windows NT and have that become the code base for the entire PC marketplace, for the consumer marketplace, for the business marketplace, for the server marketplace," Gates said. "And we achieve that with Windows XP.

"The Windows engine we?ve got here--the reliability, the performance--is very important. It?s also important that we?re able to get the industry focused on this single code base. And so creating drivers, you?ll be able to just write for the new machine for Windows XP.

"Windows XP also represents a new focus on experiences, building into the product things that make it very straightforward; for example, to get at the music type scenarios or some of these instant messaging and communications scenarios. We?ve put a lot of work into the user interface."

Microsoft eventually distributed Windows XP Beta 2 through a number of channels, including the technical beta program, the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), and TechNet. "The broad distribution of Windows XP Beta 2 represents Microsoft's commitment to working with our partners, customers, and employees to make sure Windows XP is rock solid," said Chris Jones, vice president of the Windows Client Group. "This is an ideal time for developers to build and test hardware and software for Windows XP so our customers will have the best computing experience when Windows XP is released later this year."

The release of Windows XP, of course, resulted in the release of a mountain of content on the SuperSite for Windows. This included a comprehensive review, several technology showcases, and an updated FAQ. And on March 28, I received the second Windows Media Player 8 update from Microsoft, resulting in a number of new screenshots for the SuperSite.

On April 11, Microsoft announced Windows XP Embedded, a highly componentized version of the OS designed for non-PC devices. "Windows XP Embedded is a major release, and the Windows XP Embedded RDP is a key initiative helping ensure that design scenarios have been thoroughly tested when the product ships," said Bill Veghte, the vice president of the Embedded and Appliance Platforms Group at Microsoft. "This is the first time we have run a program like this in the embedded space and we are excited to have these key industry partners participating closely in the development process."

Responding to criticism that it wouldn't be supporting the upcoming USB 2.0 standard out of the box with Windows XP, Microsoft issued a letter to its customers on April 23 explaining the decision. "Microsoft is a big supporter of both USB 2.0 and Bluetooth, as well as many other connection and wireless standards, such as IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 1394, and USB 1.0," wrote Carl Stork, General Manager of Windows Hardware Strategy. "We have been and remain committed to delivering support for these new standards in Windows XP and some of our other operating system products. The issue for USB 2.0 and Bluetooth is only the timing of availability for native support for Windows, and not any decision to choose support for one technology over another. Because of the lack of production-quality devices to test, and because Windows XP must be ready for PCs that will ship for the 2001 holiday season, Windows XP will not have native support for either technology when it is first released to PC system manufacturers. Microsoft?s goal is to deliver support for both Bluetooth and USB 2.0 soon after Windows XP is first available." Indeed, by late July, the company was already shipping beta drivers for USB 2.

On April 26, Microsoft released interim build 2465, which was the subject of a user interface gallery on the SuperSite. Build 2465 featured Windows XP branding on the Welcome screen for the first time, as well as shaded Welcome screen icons that lit up when moused-over. The new default background was Bliss, rather than Desert Moon, and this remained the case through RTM. Most importantly, the new Media Player was included for the first time, along with a new default song by David Byrne. The Start Menu featured beautiful new icons--eventually, all of the standard Windows icons would be replaced--and Microsoft included many new background images (Ascent, Autumn, etc.), most of which were quite nice.

At the Gartner's Windows 2000 and Beyond conference on April 30, Microsoft announced that the official name of Whistler Server would be Windows 2002 Server. But executives hedged a bit on the name and, sure enough, it was changed a few months later. As I reported the next day in WinInfo, Microsoft Executive Vice President Jim Allchin admitted that the name Windows 2002 might not be final after all. "We really haven't done naming right yet," he said, noting that he had had a meeting about the official name for Whistler earlier in the week and was scheduling another meeting for when he returned. "The fat lady hasn't sung yet," he said.

On May 5, 2001 Microsoft released interim build 2469 to testers. This build included four major areas of change over previous releases: Networking, Net card drivers, etc., including minor updates to the Home Network wizard and the RAS client connection wizard; Base/kernel/Plug and Play/power management, including performance, reliability, boot time, app launch, setup, uninstall, and Windows 98/Me upgrades; security & directory services, mainly new restrictions on local account login using blank passwords; and Help, management, and remote desktop/assistance.

The blank password feature was most interesting. "Windows XP has a new default security feature that helps protect users with blank passwords from attacks," Windows XP program manager Doug Anderson wrote to testers. "Users who do not password-protect their accounts can only logon to their account at the Welcome (Winlogon) screen on the physical computer console (monitor, keyboard, mouse physically connected to the computer). This restriction applies to all logon types, not just network logon. For example, you will not be able to use RunAs to run a process as an account with a blank password. This restriction only applies to local user accounts, not to domain user accounts. It also does not affect the Guest account. More detailed technical information on this will be available in a future KB article."

Build 2474--released internally on May 17, 2001--wasn't given to testers, but it was the first build to feature the new Product Activation UI, which now used new blue-style XP dialogs. It was also the first build to include a beta of Windows Messenger 4: Previous releases include MSN Messenger 3.6.

On May 22, 2001, I attended a Whistler 64 Technical Review at Microsoft's Mountain View, California campus. I wrote up a report about the event, and the 64-bit versions of Windows XP and Whistler Server, for the SuperSite.

On May 24, 2001, interim build 2475 was released to testers. This build featured a new boot up logo with a black screen that now read Windows XP instead of Whistler, a new introductory movie, a Welcome to Windows screen featuring a borderless window (not full screen anymore), a waving flag animation on the Welcome screen (that was later dropped), an icon for Remote Assistance in the root of the All Programs menu, and various tours of Windows XP and MPXP in Help and Support. Also, Setup was branded with "RC1" text, indicating that the release candidate builds were soon to come. From this point on, Windows XP didn't really change much, at least not visually, and Microsoft was working toward the phase where only bug fixes would be implemented.

Windows XP interim build 2475

Behind the scenes, Microsoft and online giant America Online (AOL) had been negotiating to determine whether AOL's latest client--AOL 7--would be included in the box with Windows XP. On June 2, I reported that talks had finally broken down for good. "We're disappointed that talks broke down, but AOL remains a very important [partner] and we are working very hard to ensure the AOL client will work great on top of Windows XP," said Microsoft spokesperson Jim Cullinan.

On June 4, 2001, Microsoft officially announced Windows Messenger 4. "Windows Messenger is an easy to use, real-time communications experience that unifies a number of communications tools such as instant messaging, voice and video, as well as collaboration tools such as file transfer, application sharing, white boarding and Remote Assistance integration--all presence enabled with better quality than ever," the company wrote in the release. "Now you can communicate and collaborate more effectively with your friends, family and colleagues."

Another build, 2481, was released internally on June 1, 2001 and given to testers on the 6th. This build featured a number of improvements, including a new Windows XP tour and two color schemes based on the Luna UI. Then called Homestead and Metallic, for their green and gray colors, respectively, the schemes were among many others that Microsoft was working on, but only these two were given the green light in time for release (others will come when Windows XP is released).

Windows XP interim build 2481

And with the release of build 2481, the Windows XP user interface was frozen. After this, there would be no more changes. "This is a needed step in our process in order to finalize documentation, the help files, and to begin final localization," the company told testers. "This means that the UI is very close to what it will be in the final product." And in addition to the UI freeze, build 2481 also marked the point of no return for hardware compatibility. Although this build didn't contain all the hardware drivers Microsoft will ship in the box with XP, the company didn't add device support beyond what was then planned.

On June 8, I reported that Windows XP RC1 had slipped a week from the week of June 18 to the week of June 25. RC1 would be the last major milestone for XP before its final release. Another issue popping up that week revolved around security expert Steve Gibson, who claimed that Windows XP was insecure and would unleash a plague of Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. I eventually spoke to Gibson about this, and though he was in contact with Microsoft several times, he and the company continue to disagree on this issue.

Interim build 2486 was released to testers on June 15, 2001. This build was notable for only one reason: For the first time, Windows XP Home Edition could support multiple monitors, including dual-view. Previously, Microsoft had said that Home Edition would support only one display. 2486 was also the first build to include the four "sample pictures" that ship in the RTM version of XP.

On June 19, 2001, Microsoft reversed course and announced that Whistler Server would be called Windows .NET Server instead of Windows 2002. A day later, the company announced the final minimum hardware requirements for Windows XP, a 233MHz Intel or compatible processor and 128MB of RAM. As I wrote at the time, "the processor, in particular, is woefully inadequate; I recommend a 300MHz processor as a bare minimum and a 500MHz or faster processor for acceptable performance. The RAM guideline makes a little more sense because 128MB is indeed the absolute minimum on which you should attempt to run XP. But RAM is inexpensive, and XP will gobble it up. Go for 256MB or more."

On June 21, the company released build 2494 to testers, which was the first to offer up balloon help suggesting that users tie their Windows logon to Passport. It was also the first build to feature the new Windows Messenger UI.

Windows XP interim build 2494

Also on June 21 was a press event in New York City called eXPo. At eXPo, we learned about Microsoft's plans for Windows XP Release Candidate 1 (RC1). Information from that meeting, held a week before the official release of RC1, formed the basis of my Windows XP RC1 review and showcases.

With the impending release of RC1 came the announcement that Microsoft and its partners would spend over $1 billion marketing Windows XP. "Never before have we seen such industry-wide support and such strong enthusiasm or investment in the launch of a Microsoft product," Microsoft COO Rick Belluzzo said to more 600 partners. "With Release Candidate 1 (RC1) of XP coming in the next 10 days, [we're] working together with our top software, hardware, channel, and retailing partners to communicate the amazing set of experiences delivered with XP."

Also on June 28 was a surprise announcement from Microsoft: Bowing to complaints, the company said that it would drop support for Smart Tags from Windows XP and the standalone version of IE 6. "We hadn't balanced the legitimate concerns of the content providers with the benefits we think Smart Tags can bring to users," said Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin. "We got way more feedback than we ever expected."

On June 29, I broke the news that Microsoft would release a Plus! pack for Windows XP, and discussed color schemes that never made it. "Microsoft ran out of time to create more [schemes[. One of the big complaints that Microsoft received from XP Beta 2 was that the Luna UI is nice but needs more color options. So Microsoft set out to create several color schemes, although only two more made the grade for quality reasons. Two such schemes--ruby and emerald--will probably be available in the Plus! pack or perhaps for download from Windows Update when XP ships this fall. Apparently, the original versions were problematic for the vision-impaired, and Microsoft will use this extra time to get them right. If you're upset about Luna's default colors, fear not: You'll soon have a rainbow of options from which to choose."

Windows XP hits the home stretch
Finally, on July 2, 2001, Microsoft released build 2505 as Release Candidate 1. Taken in the context of the previous interim releases, it didn't represent a change. But for the hundreds of thousands of people who had signed up for the Windows XP Preview Program (WPP), XP RC1 was the first build since March and a welcome improvement.

"The feedback that Microsoft has received from [more than] half a million beta testers tells us loud and clear that people are super-excited about the experiences [Windows XP enables] and that we're in the home stretch for delivering the system to our customers," said Jim Allchin, group vice president of Microsoft's Windows division. "Today's release of RC1 further underscores Microsoft's commitment to excellence and to delivering the highest-quality product to our customers on October 25."

On July 7, 2001, mistakenly posted Windows XP for sale on its site, and included box shots. Microsoft asked the company to take down the pages, which they did, though Amazon would later make the same mistake a day before XP was released to manufacturing.

Box shots of Windows XP Home and Pro Editions

July 11 brought some unexpected news. Bowing to the judgment of the US District Court of Appeals, which had largely reaffirmed Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's ruling against the company, Microsoft  announced that the company would be making sweeping concessions to PC makers that gave them far greater flexibility in customizing Windows XP and earlier versions of Windows. The company said that the policy changes will go into effect when XP ships October 25.

"We recognize that some provisions in our existing Windows licenses have been ruled improper by the court, so we are providing computer manufacturers with greater flexibility, and we are doing this immediately so that computer manufacturers can take advantage of [these changes when] planning for the upcoming release of Windows XP," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. "Windows XP represents a revolutionary step forward in personal computing, and computer manufacturers and consumers are looking forward to this product with great anticipation."

Specifically, Microsoft made these changes to its licensing policy:

  • PC makers can remove the Start menu icons that give users access to Internet Explorer (IE) and Outlook Express. Microsoft will include IE in XP's Add and Remove programs feature so that PC makers can remove the visual aspects of IE and install another Web browser.
  • PC makers can remove the IE Start menu icons from previous versions of Windows, including Windows 2000, Windows Me, and Windows 98.
  • PC makers have the option of putting icons directly onto the Windows desktop, a feature Microsoft previously planned to remove in XP. "Based on extensive customer usability studies," the company said in a statement, "Microsoft had designed Windows XP to ship with a clean desktop and improved Start menu, but PC manufacturers will now have the option of continuing to place icons on the Windows desktop if they want to."
  • Customers can use XP's Add/Remove Programs feature to remove end-user access to IE components. Microsoft says that it has always made it easy for consumers to delete the IE icons but will now offer consumers this additional option in XP.

I spoke with Windows Group Product Manager Shawn Sanford about the changes. "We decided to take proactive steps based on the Appellate Court ruling," Sanford said. "We still believe that we should [provide] users with a great experience. Users want to be online, play music, work with photographs, and communicate with their friends and family. These are the core experiences they expect when they turn on their PCs. But we also want to make sure that we're addressing the key points of the [Appellate Court] ruling." Sanford said he hoped most PC makers would leave the desktop free of icons because customer feedback shows that users prefer uncluttered desktops. Microsoft eventually modified XP to adhere to these changes before the Release Candidate 2 (RC2) milestone.

Then, on July 15, 2001, Microsoft announced that six Media Player plug-ins would be offered for Windows XP, two each from three different companies. The plug-ins, dubbed the MP3 Creation Pack and the DVD Decoder Pack, would allow users to inexpensively add MP3 recording and DVD playback capabilities, respectively, to Windows XP. "Windows XP provides a great experience for MP3 users and, with the addition of the new add-on packs, it just got better," said Dave Fester, general manager of the Windows Digital Media Division. "Customers now have [an] expanded choice for both of the leading digital music formats, as well as a great selection of vendors to choose from in CyberLink, InterVideo, and Ravisent." Previously, Microsoft had said that MP3 recording would only be added by PC makers, and that DVD playback would require a full-fledged third party application.

The concessions continued two days later when Microsoft announced that its controversial Windows Product Activation (WPA) feature would be slightly scaled back to make it less restrictive for people who change hardware a lot. "In Windows XP [Release Candidate 1] RC1, [WPA] could be a burden for the PC enthusiast who changes hardware on a regular basis," a Microsoft representative told me. "Right now we're finalizing a change to the technology that will work to make a smaller impact on these users, allowing more flexibility." The change will let users upgrade up to four meter
ed hardware devices over a period of time without requiring reactivation, although the details have yet to be finalized. If users make more than four changes, Microsoft will require a phone-based reactivation. "But it's a very simple process," said Microsoft Group Product Manager Shawn Sanford. "You say, 'I've changed these things,' they give you a key, and it's done. It's not an interview; we don't put you under the glaring lights."

On July 24, Microsoft revealed that another interim release of Windows, code-named Longhorn, would follow Windows XP, moving the release date of Blackcomb--a major release--back at least two more years. July 24 also saw the release of build 2520, the first build to include the ability to remove IE from Windows XP.

Also in late July, a group of privacy groups began petitioning the FTC to sue Microsoft for allegedly violating the FTC's unfair and deceptive trade practices statute. The groups later met with Microsoft, which made small changes to its Passport service to squash the problem.

On July 27, 2001, Microsoft finally released Windows XP Release Candidate 2 (RC2), it's final release candidate. Build 2526 was declared as RC2. "I have never worked on a product that had the kind of feedback this one does," Allchin said during a phone conference with the technical press, referring to the glowing praise he's received from beta testers and other customers. "[More than] 250,000 people have signed up for the preview program; 40,000 of those have downloaded RC1 from the Web, and many of them had slow 56Kbps modems. There are half a million people using the beta, and it's generated a lot of feedback."
XP RC2 didn't include any new features, although the company had added the ability to remove Internet Explorer (IE) as promised, and this was the first time most users had seen it. Beyond that, Microsoft said that RC2 was primarily about bug fixes and fit-and-finish work.

Windows XP RC2: Remove IE!

On July 31, the new Internet Radio Tuner for Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) went live, offering huge improvements over the previous version. The new Radio Tuner will be localized in 25 languages when XP launches on October 25.

Responding to an AOL threat to get PC makers to exclusively bundle its online service with Windows XP-based PCs, Microsoft announced on July 30 that it would also require PC makers to include the MSN icon on the Windows desktop. PC makers now have two choices with XP: They can ship computers with a clean, empty desktop--which Microsoft says is what consumers want--or they must include the MSN icon if any other icons appear on the desktop. AOL was not amused.

Build 2535 was released on August 8, 2001, though it offered no visual changes. On the 14th, the company released build 2542, the first build to require testers to use new types of Product Keys, signaling that the end was near. Like the previous build, XP
2542 offered no visual changes at all. "This build is NOT the RTM build," testers were told. "However, we are very close. This build is primarily provided to regress existing 'fixed' bugs, to uncover any last minute ship-stopper regressions, and to get a final sanity check prior to RTM. Please make sure to review the recent posts on bug filing."

The end is near: Windows XP build 2542

Build 2542 was the last build that testers would receive. On Monday, August 20, build 2454 was forked to build 2600, and the company began hammering away at this final build for RTM, alerting the press about its progress and explaining the remainder of the schedule. And on Friday, August 24, 2001, build 2600 was declared as RTM as promised, and handed off to PC makers at a media event held on the Microsoft campus.

Finally, after 18 months of frenzied development, Windows XP was complete. An excited Windows community awaits its release.

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