In a milestone for the biggest project under way at Microsoft, the company today began distributing a test version of Windows Vista, its...

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In a milestone for the biggest project under way at Microsoft, the company today began distributing a test version of Windows Vista, its flagship operating system going on sale in late 2006.

Microsoft claims the long-awaited software will dramatically improve the security of personal computing, make it easier to find and organize digital files and reduce the cost of managing corporate PCs by 25 percent.

Included in the system, formerly code-named Longhorn, is a new, more secure version of the Internet Explorer browser that will also be made available for users of the current Windows XP.

Many of Vista’s key features have already been disclosed, so Microsoft is sending a different message by releasing the software today. It’s telling software developers, computer makers and investors that the product is close to done and truly on schedule for a 2006 release.

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To amplify the point, the company said on Friday that the “beta” test version would be done “by Aug. 3,” then released it a few days earlier.

Microsoft also timed the release to arrive just before the company’s financial analyst day tomorrow, when Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, Chairman Bill Gates and other executives make their annual pitch to Wall Street and institutional investors.

Mike Sievert, the Windows vice president in charge of marketing, said the company wasn’t being tricky with the timing. But he emphasized that the beta release shows that Vista is on track.

“It’s a step we’re making on time,” he said. “We’re really pleased with the way the development has been going.”

Microsoft has been trickling previews of the software out since October 2003, but today’s beta is a polished version that can be run and tested by programmers and computer makers as they start building Vista-based products to go on sale in late 2006.

The beta version will be distributed to the more than 500,000 subscribers of Microsoft’s developer network. About 10,000 will participate in a formal, technical testing process.

More than a third of Microsoft’s employees in Redmond have worked directly or indirectly on the product, which is likely to run most of the world’s computers in the coming decade. It’s also the first PC operating system to be released since Microsoft made security and reliability top priorities.

“This will be the most secure, most reliable operating system we’ve ever released,” Sievert said.

New features include:

• A built-in desktop search tool that appears just above the Start button. It lets users quickly find all sorts of files stored on the PC; results are displayed as thumbnail images of the documents that are found.

• A new version of Internet Explorer with built-in tools to prevent “phishing” scams that fool users into thinking they’re at a secure Web site. The browser will be available for users of Windows XP in a second phase of the beta process, perhaps by the end of this year or in early 2006.

• New operating modes that make it easier for users to log in and use their PCs without administrative-level control of the system. Most consumers use their PCs today in an administrative mode that makes them more vulnerable to attack; new modes could make it easier for companies to manage PCs.

• A new transluscent desktop appearance and improved display.

• Power management features that enable Vista PCs to power up from a sleeping state in three seconds.

Some features were held for the “beta 2″ release, including extensions of the desktop search pane to perform Web searches. Also held back for later are communications features and a Shut Down” button that will appear above the Start button, enabling users to put their machines into a “hibernate” state with a single click.

Features highlighted today are mostly aimed at software developers and corporate customers. The latter will be most interested in the security improvements and administrative tools, said Dwight Davis, a Kirkland-based industry analyst at Summit Strategies, who was briefed on the release plans Wednesday.

“Administrative and security elements are things most users don’t care about one way or the other, but in some ways that’s the most compelling part of the Vista platform,” he said.

With Vista, companies can set access levels so employees can’t install programs themselves. That prevents them from mistakenly infecting machines with malicious software.

But the software also makes it easier to shift into administrative privilege mode when legitimate software needs to be installed. Instead of having to log out and log back in as administrators, the employees or technical staff can click on the program to be installed, enter an administrator’s password and proceed with the installation.

The same feature could be used by parents who want greater control over what their children do with their system, according to Austin Wilson, a director in the Windows group. He and Sievert said the administrative features can reduce the cost of operating and managing corporate PCs by 25 percent, from an average of $2,000 per desktop a year to $1,500.Although today’s beta release is ahead of the Aug. 3 deadline Microsoft gave last week, it’s a stretch to say the product is ahead of schedule. Executives said in the past that 2005 was a target for delivering the final version.

The company will also be under pressure to get all the new features sorted out in time for a late 2006 release, said Michael Cherry, a former Microsoft engineer now at the Directions on Microsoft research company in Kirkland.

Cherry said a big question with Vista is which features will be in the final version. It’s unclear from today’s release what else is coming, which limits how much testing can be done by potential buyers and developers.

“They’ve been working on it for a long time, here’s a lot of features that have been discussed,” he said. “But before you want to start spending a lot of time looking at it, you’d like to have an idea about how complete it is, how many changes there are going to be in the future.”

Sievert and Wilson said the beta process is also intended to gather feedback that will be used to refine the product before its release. The company will also be soliciting feedback during a developer conference it’s hosting in Los Angeles in September.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com