After years of false hopes and delays, Windows Vista seemed to be coming together. After a horrible return to the public eye with build 5048, Microsoft rebounded somewhat with a surprisingly solid Beta 1 release in late July 2005. But the best was yet to come: Microsoft had pledged that it would release an interim build at that year's Professional Developers Conference (PDC), which was set for September. And while it was impossible to know what the future would hold in summer 2005, beta testers who were previously used to infrequent builds only would soon be buried under a near-avalanche of almost monthly builds through the end of 2005 and into 2006. Here's how it happened.

Late 2005

In early August, I discovered that Microsoft was adding the Sidebar feature back to Windows Vista. I wrote at the time, "Microsoft returned the feature to its post-Beta 1 (e.g. 5200-series) builds. It's not on by default, and is surprisingly similar to the Dashboard feature in Mac OS X Tiger, according to my sources." That information turned out to be depressingly accurate.

In mid-August, Microsoft began referring to IE as Windows Internet Explorer, a prelude to a trend where virtually every feature in Windows would utilize the Windows brand (i.e. Photo Gallery because Windows Photo Gallery).

On August 16, I published The Road to Windows Vista 2005, a continuation of the Road to Windows Longhorn series. This overview included a lengthy overview of the Windows Vista feature-set as it was then understood and a then-current Vista delivery timeline. It also featured Microsoft's internal guidelines for Windows Vista hardware, which specified a 3 GHz processor and 512 MB of RAM or more for best performance.

In late August, I began an aborted attempt to compare the Windows Vista beta to the shipping version of Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" (see my showcase) Windows fans were upset that Apple seemed to win most of the comparisons while Apple fans decried me comparing a shipping OS X release to a beta Windows version. I was never able to finish the comparison because upcoming interim Vista releases rendered my Beta 1 comparisons moot.

On August 29, I received some internal Microsoft documentation that discussed the new timelines for Windows Vista, Longhorn Server, WinFS, and Yukon (SQL Server 2005). "Despite rumors to the contrary, but in keeping with the schedule I first published on the SuperSite for Windows months ago, Microsoft is planning to ship Windows Vista Beta 2 in late 2005, not in early 2006," I wrote. "According to internal documentation I recently reviewed, Vista Beta 2 is scheduled to be 'feature complete' by September 29, 2005. Then, Vista Beta 2 will enter lockdown mode between October and November 9, 2005. After that date, Beta 2 will be in escrow. Microsoft now plans to ship Windows Vista Beta 2 on December 7, about three weeks later than the last schedule I obtained."

"What about post-Beta 2? According to a second set of documentation I viewed Monday, Microsoft will ship Windows Vista Release Candidate 0 (RC0) on April 19, 2006, and Windows Vista RC1 on June 28, 2006. Microsoft currently plans to release Windows Vista to manufacturing on August 9, 2006, and make the product broadly available by November 15, 2006."

We now know this schedule was never met. But now, for the first time, I can tell you why. In late August 2005, Microsoft was still developing Windows Vista as it did previous Windows versions: New features were being added on the fly, and would continue to be added right up through the release candidate stages. However, sometime in fall 2005, Microsoft vice president Brian Valentine would make a risky decision: Instead of following the development model of previous Windows versions, he would require the product groups at Microsoft to add all but a handful of features to Windows Vista by the end of 2005. This would allow Microsoft to focus only on fit and finish, performance, and other fine-tuning issues throughout most of 2006.

This decision would have a few ramifications. First, testers would essentially see all of the major new functionality in Windows Vista far earlier in the beta cycle than they did with previous Windows versions. (One side-effect: Future interim builds would be perceived as "boring" since there were no major changes coming.) Second, many of these features would be quite buggy through mid-2006, because they were added to Vista much earlier than they would have been added normally. And finally, Microsoft was able to make huge performance, reliability, and fit and finish gains very late in the game--by Release Candidate 1 (RC1)--a change that surprised testers as well as other onlookers such as myself.

In any event, those plans were yet to come. In the meantime, Microsoft continued to jettison features from Windows Vista. Early in the development of Longhorn, the company had made a big deal out of its so-called Palladium security features, which were later renamed to Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB) and then dropped almost entirely. By late August 2005, Microsoft had retained only a small sliver of Palladium functionality in Windows Vista: Secure Startup and Bitlocker. This is one of the rare cases where a feature drop was actually welcome: Microsoft had planned to use Palladium to lock down PCs in ways that sounded quite Orwellian.

By September, Microsoft began extolling its decision to push Tablet PC features out of a specialized Windows version and into every Windows Vista product edition. Microsoft said that it would be adding touch screen support, new Text Input Panel (TIP) functionality, and native 64-bit support to its Tablet PC features.

And then the bombshell. A source deep in the Windows Division forwarded me Microsoft's plans for its Windows Vista product editions, or SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) just two days before the company planned to announce it officially at the PDC 2005 trade show. Microsoft was rocked by my disclosure, and it triggered a nasty battle that involved the company's legal department and threatened my relationship with Microsoft for months to come. (A few days later, at PDC, several Microsofties actually congratulated me on my Vista product editions scoop, which was nice. Well, actually, one called me a "SKU spilling loser," but it was delivered in humorous fashion. I think.)

The plan, which differs from the final product family only in a few small ways, broken down like so: There would be two general categories of Windows Vista editions, which map closely to the two that exist today for XP ("Home," which comprises Starter, Home, and Media Center Editions; and Pro, which includes Professional, Professional x64, and Tablet PC Editions). In Windows Vista, the two categories were Home and Business. In the Home category, Microsoft would create four product editions: Windows Vista Starter Edition, Windows Vista Home Basic Edition, Windows Vista Home Premium Edition, and Windows Vista Ultimate Edition (previously known as "Uber" Edition). In the Business category, there were three editions: Windows Vista Small Business Edition, Windows Vista Professional Edition, and Windows Vista Enterprise Edition. In all, there were 7 product editions planned for Windows Vista, not including the "N" editions for Europe and the "K" editions for South Korea. (The only product edition that didn't appear was Small Business Edition; Vista Professional was renamed to Business.)

Here's how I described the product editions at the time. Note that these descriptions were based on the internal documentation I had received.

  • Windows Vista Starter Edition: Aimed at beginner computer users in emerging markets who can only afford a low cost PC. As with the XP version, Windows Vista Starter Edition is a subset of Home Edition, and will ship in a 32-bit version only (no 64-bit x64 version). Starter Edition will allow only three applications (and/or three windows) to run simultaneously, will provide Internet connectivity but not incoming network communications, and will not provide for logon passwords or Fast User Switching (FUS). Windows Vista Starter Edition is analogous to XP Starter Edition. This version will only be sold in emerging markets.

  • Windows Vista Home "Basic" Edition: A simple version of Windows Vista that is aimed at single PC homes. Windows Vista Home Basic is the baseline version of Windows Vista, and the version that all other product editions will build from. It will include features such as Windows Firewall, Windows Security Center, secure wireless networking, parental controls, anti-spam/anti-virus/anti-spyware functionality, network map, Windows Search, the Aero user interface, Movie Maker, Photo Library, Windows Media Player, Outlook Express with RSS support, P2P Messenger, and more. Windows Vista Home Basic Edition is roughly analogous to Windows XP Home Edition. This version is aimed at general consumers, Windows 9x/XP Starter Edition upgraders, and price sensitive/first-time buyers.

  • Windows Vista Home "Premium" Edition: Whole home entertainment and personal productivity throughout the home and on the go. As a true superset of Home Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium Edition will include everything from Home Basic, as well as Media Center and Media Center Extender functionality (including Cable Card support), DVD video authoring and HDTV support, DVD ripping support (yes, you read that right), Tablet PC functionality, Mobility Center and other mobility and presentation features, auxiliary display support, P2P ad-hoc meeting capabilities, Wi-Fi auto-config and roaming, unified parental controls that work over multiple PCs, backup to network functionality, Internet File Sharing, Offline Folders, PC-to-PC sync, Sync Manager, and support for Quattro Home Server. Windows Vista Premium Edition is similar to XP Media Center Edition, except that it adds numerous other features and functionality, including Tablet PC support. My guess is that this will be the volume consumer offering in the Windows Vista timeframe (today, XP Pro is the dominant seller). This version is aimed at PC enthusiasts, multiple-PC homes, homes with kids, and notebook users.

  • Windows Vista Professional Edition: A powerful, reliable and secure OS for businesses of all sizes. Windows Vista Pro Edition will include domain join and management functionality, compatibility with non-Microsoft networking protocols (Netware, SNMP, etc.), Remote Desktop, IIS Web server, and Encrypted File System (EFS). Additionally, Pro Standard will include Tablet PC functionality. Windows Vista Pro is roughly analogous to XP Pro today. This version is aimed at business decision makers and IT managers and generalists.

  • Windows Vista Small Business Edition: Designed for small businesses without IT staff. Small Business Edition is a superset of Vista Pro Standard Edition, and includes the following unique features: Backup and Shadow Copy support, Castle and server-join networking, and PC fax and scanning utility. Additionally, Microsoft is looking at including a number of other features, many of which might be cut: These include Small Business Edition guided tour, pre-paid access to the Windows Live! Small Business or Microsoft Office Live! subscription services, Multi-PC Health (a managed version of Microsoft One Care Live), and membership in the Microsoft Small Business Club online service. Microsoft will offer a Step-Up program for Small Business Edition that will allow customers to upgrade to Windows Vista Enterprise Edition (see below) or Windows Vista Ultimate Edition (see below) at a reduced cost. This SKU is new to Windows Vista; there is no XP Small Business Edition. This version is aimed at small business owners and managers.

  • Windows Vista Enterprise Edition. Optimized for the enterprise, this version will be a true superset of Windows Vista Pro Edition. It will also include unique features such as Virtual PC, the multi-language user interface (MUI), and the Secure Startup/full volume encryption security technologies ("Cornerstone"). There is no analogous XP version for this product. This version is aimed at business decision makers, IT managers and decision makers, and information workers/general business users.

  • Windows Vista "Ultimate" Edition: The best operating system ever offered for a personal PC, optimized for the individual. Windows Vista Ultimate Edition is a superset of both Vista Home Premium and Vista Pro Edition, so it includes all of the features of both of those product versions, plus adds Game Performance Tweaker with integrated gaming experiences, a Podcast creation utility (under consideration, may be cut from product), and online "Club" services (exclusive access to music, movies, services and preferred customer care) and other offerings (also under consideration, may be cut from product). Microsoft is still investigating how to position its most impressive Windows release yet, and is looking into offering Ultimate Edition owners such services as extended A1 subscriptions, free music downloads, free movie downloads, Online Spotlight and entertainment software, preferred product support, and custom themes. There is nothing like Vista Ultimate Edition today. This version is aimed at high-end PC users and technology influencers, gamers, digital media enthusiasts, and students.

The goal of the product edition differentiations in Windows Vista was to provide a "clear value proposition" to all customer segments and take XP-era innovations, such as the Media Center and Tablet PC functionality, to the mainstream. Windows Vista was also being positioned as a transitionary product for the x64 platform: Almost all Windows Vista editions would be offered in both x86 (32-bit) and x64 (64-bit) versions. Microsoft expected to transition completely to x64 post-Vista. (And still does, by the way.) For more information about these product editions (as envisioned in September 2005), checkout my Windows Vista Product Editions Preview.

What's interesting about this list is that you can see how poorly-planned the Small Business Edition was. It shouldn't be surprising that they later dropped this version. (Also, Microsoft briefly considered naming Windows Vista Professional Edition as Windows Vista Professional Standard Edition, while Enterprise Edition was to have been called Windows Vista Professional Premium Edition. I'm not sure why they changed it, but having two products with Professional in the name would have been confusing.)

Another tidbit: Though Microsoft was obviously quite upset about this disclosure, news of these various product editions would have broken at PDC regardless: The Vista build we received at the show contained folders identifying these product editions.

Finally, on September 12, 2005, PDC 2005 dawned. Microsoft handed out Windows Vista build 5219 (see my review and screenshot galleries), which it described as a Community Technical Preview (CTP) build. While this first Vista CTP didn't not some of the features Microsoft was promising, it did include a number of improvements over Beta 1, such as more Aero translucencies, Flip3D application switching, the new Sidebar (which was, as I noted earlier, very much like Apple's Dashboard), new premium games (which later filtered down to most Vista editions), Windows Backup, and more.

By the way, regarding Sidebar: At PDC, Microsoft said that the new Sidebar, like so many other Windows Vista technologies, would be made available "downlevel" to legacy OSes such as Windows XP with Service Pack 2 (SP2). Microsoft's Sean Alexander told me that the company was doing this to ensure that more developers would embrace Gadgets, which makes a lot of sense. In January 2006, Microsoft gave me an XP version of Sidebar, but I've never gotten an update about this project since. I'm curious if Microsoft still plans an XP version of Sidebar (but apparently too lazy to actually ask). Also, as I wrote at the time, "Mac fanatics were apparently beside themselves this week that Microsoft had shown off what appears to be a rip-off of the Dashboard feature in Mac OS X 10.4 'Tiger.' The feature I'm referring to, the gadgets in Sidebar, is actually arguably a rip-off of Stardock's DesktopX product. Stardock has been making UI like this for years, and long before OS X Tiger or even Konfabulator ever appeared. If anyone should be indignant about this, it's Stardock, not Apple. That's my take on it."

At PDC, Microsoft also announced that it would be releasing monthly CTP builds of Vista for the remainder of the development cycle. (The software giant would later claim it didn't promise "monthly" builds, however. For the record, it did indeed promise monthly builds, but we would receive new CTP releases in October and December 2005 and then again through much of early 2006.) "I'd much rather get rougher but more frequent builds than have to wait several months between major beta releases," I wrote at the time. "Taken in this light, Windows Vista build 5219 is exactly what it should be: A functional and demonstrable improvement over the Beta 1 feature-set. In other words, Windows Vista is finally real and finally on the fast track toward completion. We're going to see regular progress, and we're going to see regular improvements, and build 5219 is just the beginning ... Microsoft has turned things around admirably."

With PDC over, the internal documentation kept rolling in. I received info about Microsoft's plans to distribute the PDC Vista build, or the September CTP, as Microsoft called it, to MSDN and TechNet customers and beta testers. The September CTP, according to the documentation, was based on the Vista Beta 2 build "tree" and included such things as User Account Protection (UAP, disabled by default), Windows SideShow, Windows SuperFetch, Meeting Space (then a codename for Microsoft's peer-to-peer collaboration feature), Flip and Flip3D, the new XPS (XML Paper Specification) format, and "Fast On-Off." I also got the cheat-sheets that Microsoft representative used to answer press questions during PDC, which I admit was kind of fun. Typical examples include:

Q. What is the [Insert SKU name here] Edition SKU?
A. It is too early to discuss specifics at this time. No final decisions have been made about the naming, pricing or features of each product edition.

Q: How is this Windows Sidebar different from what was demonstrated in 2003?
A: The most noticeable change will be how Windows Sidebar interacts with applications. For example, in the original vision, applications minimized/maximized to/from from the Sidebar. We internalized feedback from customers regarding this approach at this time. Now, Gadgets for Windows Sidebar will run alongside desktop applications which will take advantage of improvements in the taskbar. But the biggest difference is the maturity of our development platform and the flexibility of being able to incorporate full high-fidelity WPF-based Gadgets alongside DHTML/Atlas-based Gadgets. As a result, a wider-range of developers will be able to build for Windows Sidebar.

In late September, Microsoft announced a massive reorganization. Jim Allchin announced that he would retire from Microsoft when Windows Vista was finalized, so Microsoft revealed that Mr. Allchin would split his job with Kevin Johnson in the meantime. Johnson came from Microsoft sales and marketing and the contrast between him and the far more technical is as stark as it is alarming. Suffice to say, Jim Allchin will be missed dearly.

On October 14, 2005, Microsoft shipped me the October 2005 Windows Vista CTP (build 5231), though it had leaked to the Web a few days earlier. As with the previous CTP, I supplied a review and various screenshot galleries of the build, which included a slew of new features, such as Windows Media Player 11, Media Center, Windows Digital Gallery (later renamed Photo Gallery), Mobility Center, Network Center (later renamed Network and Sharing Center), Computers and Devices (later dropped), numerous new IE 7 features, built-in Windows Antispyware (later renamed Windows Defender), and much more.

Here, sadly, I further damaged my relationship with Microsoft. As a long time fan and proponent of Windows Media Center, I was horrified by what I saw in build 5231. "Let me be clear here," I wrote. "I love Media Center. I mean, it's not perfect, and I've certainly had my issues with it, but Media Center is good stuff. That said, Microsoft has completely and utterly screwed up the version of Media Center they're intending to include with Windows Vista. It is a complete disaster. Whoever OK'd this should be fired immediately, maybe even physically injured. It's that bad."

That, obviously, was a bit strong. I can't make up for it, other than to say I feel very strongly about Media Center. I can (and did) apologize for this statement, when I got a surprise phone call from Microsoft while on vacation in Montreal later that week. And I changed the wording in the review to be less aggressive. My problems with the then-current version of Media Center can still be read in my build 5231 review. But I'll say this now: Microsoft has mostly fixed the problems in the final Vista version. And the next version (think late 2007) will be even better.

In its public documentation for the October CTP, Microsoft highlighted the following advances:

Diagnostics. The improved diagnostic capabilities of Windows Vista will enable a new level of confidence in the overall system function through significantly improving the manageability and diagnostic function of the desktop.

Connection and Collaboration. With Windows Vista, connecting to a variety of devices and networks is faster, easier, and more secure, synchronizing data is simple and using a computer while on the go has never been easier.

Internet Explorer for Windows Vista. Internet Explorer for Windows Vista in the October CTP includes many important new features in the areas of security, end-user experience and the developer platform designed to provide users with more confidence in their browsing experience ? many of which were recently addressed at the PDC.

By November, Microsoft was wrestling with how it would proceed with Vista's development schedule. A source told me, "There appears to be a major shift in the Vista Beta schedule brewing. Microsoft is slipping the Vista Beta 2 release from December to sometime in January/February, and will probably drop one of the planed RCs to gain back the schedule slip." Interestingly, Microsoft recently corroborated this in a Vista briefing, when I was told that they considered the "new" Beta 2 to replace the originally planned RC0 release. I wrote at the time that Microsoft was delaying Beta 2 and asked Microsoft whether it was canceling Windows Vista Beta 2 and instead using CTP builds until the March/April 2006 release of RC0.

Microsoft actually went on record with a quote: "We are on schedule and committed to shipping on time and ensuring a high-quality product," I was told. "Microsoft sets internal targets for the development team around milestones, but these are not commitments to specific dates. We do not comment on these internal milestones and we have not announced a specific timeframe for our next major Windows Vista milestone. "

"That said, customers have told us repeatedly they prefer more frequent code drops through our Community Technology Preview (CTP) program [which] provides a great avenue for real time feedback and testing from our customers--feedback we formerly received only through the beta process. You should expect Microsoft to continue their focus to deliver CTPs in the coming months given how successful this program has been."

I eventually wrote up a showcase describing Microsoft's new emphasis on CTP releases.

In November, Microsoft shipped an internal Vista build, 5259, which it had originally planned as the November CTP. This build featured the now-well-known Bliss backdrop that was the default wallpaper for the remainder of the Vista beta. (Fun fact: That wallpaper was the winner of an internal contest at Microsoft to supply a Vista wallpaper. The winner will be included in the product.) I did install build 5259 and took quite a number of screenshots but didn't review the build.

Eventually, Microsoft decided it would not ship a November CTP because of the aforementioned changes to the Vista schedule. "There will be no CTP for Vista in November because we are targeting for most features to be code-complete by end of December and resources efforts are going towards that effort," I was told. "We should have a CTP in December before the Christmas holiday. These interim changes have no impact on our general availability target for Windows Vista. We are on track to deliver a high-quality Windows Vista in the 2nd half of 2006."

By mid-December, Microsoft was ready to ship its third CTP. Windows Vista build 5270 (see my review and screenshot galleries) was a wonderful rebound from the October CTP. I described it as "near feature complete" at the time and lauded its improved Setup, new Start Menu and Start button, various new applications, and even an improved Media Center. Windows Mail, sadly, was revealed to be a new version of Outlook Express and not a completely new email client as hoped. But no matter, things were looking up. "From what I can see, Vista has turned the corner," I wrote. "The December CTP is an exciting release, stable and full of new features."

I did, however, raise an issue that I still consider to be problematic: "One issue Microsoft is going to have to work hard to overcome is how closely parts of this product resemble Mac OS X," I wrote. "These similarities go beyond surface UI coincidences and extend into bundled applications like Windows Calendar, which very closely emulate similar Apple products in both look and feel and functionality. While the typical Windows user probably won't care that Apple 'did it first' (or even whether it's even true), more experienced users will feel cheated by these similarities. There are overt examples of innovation in Vista, however, such as the visual media library in Windows Media Player, which should both satisfy complaints and give Apple something to emulate as well." (Note that Apple did indeed copy WMP's visual media library with iTunes 7 almost a year later.)

Internally, Microsoft was very proud of the progress it had made with build 5270. "[Testers will] see a much improved Windows Vista when they get 5270 and many will be using this OS during their vacation season," one internal email reads. "This will make a nice holiday gift for them ... The next big push is February IDX/CTP." Another email read, "The next external release will be in mid-February. The current plan is to fork the branch in the week of 1/23/06." That's right: There would be no January CTP.

Microsoft's public fact sheet for the December CTP highlighted Windows Defender, BitLocker Driver Encryption, new Group Policy controls, new IE 7 features, parental controls, the enhanced firewall, new power state transitions, and "significant" improvements in the Vista UI. "Aero is the new Windows design philosophy that encompasses an entirely new look and feel for the desktop, and represents a set of design principles that Microsoft is following throughout the overall development process," the document reads. "Evidence of Aero?s progress in the December CTP includes the translucent ?glass? appearance of open windows, smoother transitions between windows and a re-designed start menu."

With 2005 rolling to a close, Windows watchers looked forward to the first CTP of the new year, which would reportedly be feature-complete. We also looked forward to Microsoft completing and, finally, releasing Windows Vista. All of these hopes would be fulfilled for the most part, though Vista would, of course, suffer from further delays and other drama. 2006, the last year of development for Windows Vista, would prove to be as dramatic as any that had come before.

Coming soon: Road to Gold: The Long Road to Windows Vista Part 6: 2006