Vista Beta 2

As I write this column, we’re a couple of weeks away from the really, truly, hard-and-fast Beta 2 release of Vista, but the version I’m running here is pretty close to the likely final version. The final beta will be released at the WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) gathering in Seattle, which I’ll be attending, so next month I’ll be reporting all the leading-edge hardware and design changes that Microsoft and its partners are thinking about.

Okay then, I’m running build 5365, which is a few builds short of the “True Beta 2”, so what’s it like? Well, it’s only been a month or two since I last looked at a build in any detail, but I’d have to say that lots of small changes have been affected. For example, the dock is now an active area at the right-hand side of the Desktop, and there’s a whole heap of nice-looking widgets that you can drop into this area, many of which make great use of the 3D rendering effects in the full version of the Vista display engine. I should point out that I used an “Ultimate” installation key of this build, so I should have been seeing all the new toys and features.

This build looks much more polished and finished and, although there are more holes in it than a colander, it’s clear that it’s finally coming together. At this late stage in the development game, you can be assured this is pretty much what will ship. The rest of 2006 will be spent on bug fixes and filling in the gaps, but don’t expect any more major additions.

There is, however, still scope for things to be pulled out. That’s the nature of software development, and is nothing special to Microsoft. Where Microsoft so often goes wrong is in ordering a heroic development programme every five years or so, which winds up everyone to such a fever pitch that we’re grateful when the damn thing finally arrives. The downside to this approach is that it’s hard to retain the interest of users, especially home/SoHo users, over such a lengthy period – there may be service packs and the occasional add-on pack to amuse, but nothing to get excited about in the meantime.

Compare and contrast this with Apple’s approach – it’s managed to bring out almost annual releases of its OS X operating system, which deliver truly useful and worthwhile improvements. Existing users are more than happy to hand over their hundred quid for each upgrade. This walks like, talks like, looks like (and therefore probably is) a subtle and successful subscription model, which suggests Apple has found its way over the big hump that’s so far defeated Microsoft into establishing a rolling software subscription model that remains inclusive and non-threatening to users.

Somehow Microsoft gets it wrong every time. One only needs to look at Windows Genuine (Dis) Advantage, now expanded to include Office in the past few weeks, to see how cringingly badly Microsoft can handle this sort of issue.

Slow recovery

One particular functional area I wanted to try in the new build was the backup-and-recovery tool, which promises to allow you to take a system snapshot from which you can recover the whole machine. I fired up the app, found some blank DVDs and sat back waiting to be amazed. Regrettably, I’m still waiting.

This application can only write images to either recordable CDs or DVDs, or to another hard disk (one assumes they intend this to be an external device rather than one that’s built into your laptop alongside the main partition). I inserted a DVD, pressed the relevant buttons and have so far been sitting watching one of those glowingly animated progress bars for well over an hour – and it hasn’t even reached halfway yet. And this for an installation that consists of just the plain Vista code with no other applications or data. As an aside, the system tells me I have 78.1GB free out of the 87.8GB partition I set up during the install, although actually I told the setup program I wanted a 90GB partition, so a little bit has been lost (probably to the taxman). Or perhaps someone is playing the 1,000 vs 1,024 game on me. When I ask for 90GB, I expect to get 90GB.

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