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The Road to Gold (Part Two)

Finally, on October 31, 2000, Microsoft released Whistler build 2296 as Beta 1. "The release of Whistler Beta 1 represents the next step in delivering on our vision for Windows and will provide software and hardware vendors with a single code-base on which to develop applications and devices for both home and business PC users," said Microsoft senior VP Brian Valentine, who oversees the Windows Division at Microsoft. "This release will help us continue to receive the feedback we need, which will help ensure broad compatibility of software applications and hardware devices and ultimately provide the best customer experience."

Microsoft also announced that it was planning a phased rollout of Whistler, which allowed the company to keep to its yearly release schedule for consumers. "Whistler represents a significant milestone for the industry by bringing the reliability of the Windows 2000 code base to both business and home PC users," a Microsoft spokesperson told me. "In order to bring the reliability of Windows 2000 to consumers as soon as possible, and to address the feedback from enterprise customers, Microsoft plans a phased release of Whistler, beginning with the desktop products, followed by the server versions. Both the desktop and server versions are expected to be generally available in the second half of 2001."

With Beta 1, "It's too soon to map out any specific new features in Whistler," Whistler lead product manager Greg Sullivan told me. "We've brought the foundation of Windows 2000 forward and now we're testing, in Beta one, the compatibility of software and hardware devices. The key here is feedback from the testers regarding compatibility." In other words, the visual stuff was bound to change. A confidential source at Microsoft explained why. "It turns out that skinning the UI is a bit difficult and we're concerned with what might happen. There may be a skinning kit later but right now it's not supported. If you've seen the various builds you will have seen the progression in the UI. This will continue post-Beta 1 as you will shortly discover. I can't say for certain, but I have the feeling that the UI is being hacked about a lot, so it makes sense to not allow UI skins for now. In Beta 1, there is no published way to create a skin, nor have we suggested that this would be possible either now or later. We will have to wait and see, but I fully expect folks to work this out and to publish the approach."

"Consumers care a great deal about the compatibility of devices and software," Sullivan said. "They also care about reliability and dependability. The goal with Whistler is to give them both. The goal is for everything to work." And because the consumer Windows products have been on a different release schedule than the business products, the planned phased rollout of Whistler makes sense: The Personal and Professional editions of Whistler will ship months before the Server editions, he says, though both are due in the second half of 2001. "Our consumer and business OSes are on a different schedule," Sullivan notes, "and Whistler will be no different. Consumer OSes are generally released more frequently. Server is on a different deployment schedule."

Whistler Beta 1 (Build 2296)

A few days after Whistler Beta 1 shipped, I revealed in WinInfo that Microsoft would be including an integrated media player, and Instant Messaging (IM) client in IE 6.0, the version of IE that would be included in Windows XP. IE 6 went through a few changes since its inception--most notably the removal of Smart Tags and the Personal Bar--due to tester feedback.

At that year's Fall Comdex, a number of notable Whistler-related events occurred. First, Microsoft mistakenly referred to Whistler as "Windows 2001" in a press release about the Gates keynote. "[Gates] explained that cutting-edge hardware and software companies are excited and already planning for the Windows 2001 launch." The company claimed it was a typo and later corrected the blurb to simply read Whistler instead of Windows 2001. And Microsoft unveiled its Tablet PC, which would be based on a version of Whistler. Read my review of Fall Comdex 2000 for more information.

Original Microsoft press release (excerpt)

After Comdex, I cast my (somewhat incorrect) vote for the final Whistler name: Windows .NET 2002. And actually, that is indeed the name of the server versions of Whistler.

In mid-December, Microsoft showed off the new version of Windows Media technologies that would be incorporated into Windows XP, Windows Media Audio (WMA) and Windows Media Video 8. Windows Media Audio 8 can deliver near-CD quality sound at 48 Kbps, compared to WMA 7's 96 Kbps and MP3's 128 Kbps. And Windows Media Video 8 can deliver near-DVD quality video at 500 Kbps, opening up the possibility of video on demand for broadband users. The company also released a command line tool that enabled users to get started with the new formats.

On December 18, 2000, Microsoft announced that an embedded version of Whistler--cunningly named Whistler Embedded--would be created to serve a range of embedded scenarios, such as Windows-based terminals, advanced Internet-capable set-top boxes, and retail point-of-sale (PoS) kiosks. "Building on the success of Windows NT Embedded 4.0, we are committed to helping embedded developers utilize the 'Whistler' advancements through componentization and a rich embedded tool set," said Bill Veghte, the vice president of the Embedded and Appliance Platforms Group at Microsoft. "The release of 'Whistler Embedded' Beta 1 is an important milestone because it facilitates feedback from our close customers and industry partners, which is critical to ensuring a reliable and well-tested final release for the fast-growing embedded industry." The company promised to release Whistler Embedded within 90 days of the wide availability of the PC versions of Whistler.

After over two months of silence, the Whistler beta finally kicked into gear again on January 4, 2001, with the release of interim build 2410. This build is notable primarily because it is the first to include the dreaded Windows Product Activation (WPA) feature. Here's how I described it at the time: "This version of Whistler, which is the next version of Windows, now features some intriguing anti-piracy mechanisms that create a personal product identification code that is attached to the machine on which the OS is installed. If I understand the purpose of this new scheme, Microsoft is finally following through on its long-time threat to enforce its licensing policies, as each Windows license is technically attached to the machine on which it is first installed, and is not attached to the person that installed the product. With the new scheme, it will no longer be possible to use the same Product ID to install Windows to more than one machine."

Whistler 2410 included a number of new features, such as some nice new high-color icons, a renaming of the Professional Theme to "Watercolor," and more. IE 6.0 was included for the first time, and it came with the new Media and IM Explorer bars. This build did not include new Visual Styles; instead, a demonstration Theme was included to show how the UI could be changed, but sources at Microsoft told me that week that the company had no plans to release any sort of Theme builder application so that users can make their own UIs. In a controversial move obviously intended as a poke at Apple Computer, the Recycle Bin has been moved to the lower right of the Desktop by default, where the Mac's Trashcan is located. Also, much of the text in Whistler 2410 was changed to read "Beta 2," though this build, of course, was not yet Beta 2.

Whistler build 2410 included a number of firsts for this product

For more information, read my review of Build 2410.

At the Bill Gates keynote during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) on January 5, 2001, some very interesting happened, though no one seemed to notice it: The new Welcome screen that would later debut in Windows XP build 2428 was briefly seen during his Windows XP demo. Gates said that Whistler will make it far easier to work with digital cameras, scanners, and video recorders. He also showed off the Xbox, new Windows CE-based devices, and a variety of personal audio devices that support Windows Media formats.

"The key thing to remember with the next generation of Windows is, we are basing it on the Windows 2000 platform," Microsoft Product Manager Steve Guggenheimer said during the Gates keynote. "So we'll bring you the dependability of our highest end corporate desktop, and total dependability, to the home. But, at the same time, we're starting to move it in the direction of making it very consumer-oriented. Making it very friendly for the home user to use. So it can be on 24 hours a day, and it can have the same reliability and durability as a traditional consumer electronics device.

"What you'll notice here is a login screen. And the way this is set up is, it's set up for multiple users. So, we found in our research at home that many people use the PC for multiple people. If you want to change users in today's world, you have to close off your applications, log off, and let the other person log on. It's not a very friendly way to go.

"Now, what we've done here is we've set it up so that I can log on, and you'll notice that there are programs running under each of the different users. The way this works is, when I'm working on the machine, when I want to stop using it, I can simply walk away, and within a minute or two it will come back to this screen and it will save my state. So, when my daughter Hannah walks up, she can come on, it will remember her state and go there, or when I want to log back in, I can simply click on Steve, and it will bring me back into the desktop and back into working, if I use the right mouse button there.

"Now, the next thing you'll notice in terms of the user interface is that it's very clean. We found over the years that there's been some clutter as more and more icons have appeared on the desktop, and what users have told us is, they want to be able to use this as their space, to be able to add things here that they want. Now, of course, when people upgrade we'll keep what they've done already. But for New Year's what we've tried to do is take -- let me step in front here so I can drive -- is take all the information and put it in the start page. We've made it much easier in terms of the most recent applications you've been using, my pictures, my photos, the things that consumers care about. So, in a lot of ways, we're working very hard to make this a much easier to use device.

"Now, in terms of Whistler, this is the sneak preview, I will show more as the months go on. The other thing I really want to highlight is the PC itself. We believe that in the next generation of PCs, as it becomes more like a consumer electronics device, that we really want to move in terms of both functionality and form, to a new generation, a new style of Whistler style PCs that are moving from below the desk to on top of the desk. And this is something we've built just to demonstrate the type of hardware you'd see with the next generation of Whistler."

A week after CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer admitted that open source sensation Linux was the number one threat to Windows. "I think you have to rate competitors that threaten your core [product line] higher than you rate competitors where you're trying to take from them," he said. "It puts the Linux phenomenon and the Unix phenomenon at the top of the list. I'd put the Linux phenomenon really as threat number one."

On January 12, ZDNet incorrectly reported that IE 6 would only be offered with Whistler, and not be made available as a free download. I refuted this claim, noting that Microsoft said that IE would always be free. Shortly thereafter, the company began an IE 6 beta test, and today, users of Windows 9x, Me, NT, and 2000 can download IE 6 for free.

On January 16, 2001, Microsoft released build 2416 to testers. This build features a much more attractive Help and Support, beta MP3 support in Windows Media Player 8, a new File and Transfer Settings Wizard, a cascading Start Menu, new performance options, System Restore integration with System Properties, and more. See my Build 2416 screenshot gallery for more information. One odd thing that also appeared in this build was the new Setup front-end, which would later be tweaked to be more attractive. But the version in 2416 was downright nasty looking...

Build 2416: Ugh

With the rapid releases of builds 2410 and 2416, it was obvious that work on Whistler was accelerating, and improving dramatically. In late January, CRN reported that Microsoft would release Beta 2 that February, with a public beta of the OS expected "within 60 to 90 days." Sure enough, Microsoft later did start a Windows XP Preview Program (WPP). However, CRN incorrectly speculated that Microsoft was trying to release Whistler by mid-2001.

On January 22, I reported that the MCSE exams and certifications for Windows 2000 and Whistler would be interchangeable, and regardless of the number of times I've published this information since, I still get mail about it regularly.

Microsoft released its final Whistler interim build on January 23. That is, build 2419 would be the last to feature the "Professional" theme (renamed to Watercolor in this release), since this would be replaced by the now-familiar, blue "Windows XP" theme. "[Build 2419 has minor improvements on what was in 2416, along with some significant shell performance improvements (and more to come)," Microsoft program manager John Gray told testers. "Mostly, we're focusing on critical bug fixes. There won't be significant interface or skin changes."

Build 2419 debuted the final Windows XP Setup routine (with Beta 2 text), which was actually a preview of the new look and feel to come. It also included much of the final Windows XP wallpaper selection.

Whistler build 2419 was the first to feature the final Setup routine and wallpaper

By the end of January, the final naming for Whistler was beginning to become an issue as news and rumor sites alike began printing their guesses and "insider" information. But on January 26, I first published the correct final name for both Whistler and Office 10, noting that the products would use the "XP" moniker, for "experience." I had heard that Bill Gates himself had nixed the name Office 2002 for Office 10, along with various other names, such as Office X and Office Millennium Edition.

"You heard it hear first," I wrote in an article titled, Whistler: Are You Experienced? I noted that Microsoft would launch Whistler Beta 2 as Windows XP on February 13, at the rock 'n' roll-themed Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle. I was invited, but didn't intend, because I'd be heading to Redmond a week earlier for a secretive tech press preview of Windows XP. I was, however, able to send an associate to the later EMP event in my stead.

One thing I was dead wrong about regarded rumors that Microsoft was working on a new UI for Whistler. "Contrary to reports, Whistler Beta 2 won't introduce a new Luna UI," I wrote. "As discussed on the SuperSite for Windows, Whistler's UI debuted a long time ago. Whistler's UI is fairly malleable, with a new skinning feature that supports almost infinite UI possibilities. Whistler also lets users choose between the classic Start menu seen today in Windows 2000 and Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me) and a new Start menu that collects commonly used tasks into a single, easy-to-access location." It was true that the "Luna" technology was in Whistler long before Beta 2. However, Beta 2 did eventually arrive with a new-look UI.

Continued in Part Three...

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