Finally, it comes to this. Five years after the first planning meetings, Microsoft was ramping up to ship its next-generation Windows version, Windows Vista. While it would be wrong to call the lengthy development of Windows Vista unprecedented--certainly, Windows 2000 suffered from a similarly painful and time-consuming gestation--Vista's delays came at a tough time for Microsoft, which was suffering from unexpected and unwanted security problems and surprisingly effective competition in the OS, browser, and digital media markets. Still, 2006 dawned bright with promise. Microsoft and Windows watchers alike were looking forward to the first feature-complete Vista version and promise of a late 2006 launch. Vista, finally, was almost complete.

2006

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates heralded the coming year. "This is the year that [Windows] Vista, Office 12 and many other products will come out, and the realization of [Windows] Media Center as a volume mainstream product will really be clear to everyone in the marketplace," he said during his CES keynote. "Consumers are getting more and more connected. They're getting richer experiences, and software is really at the center of that."

At CES, Microsoft showed off some new Vista functionality that it had "never showed before." This included the Aero user interface (which had been shown before), Flip3D (which appeared in the December 2005 CTP build), Windows Sidebar and Sideshow (ditto, though Microsoft did show off Sideshow hardware for the first time since WinHEC 2005), Vista's new gaming features, Windows Photo Gallery and more. Joining Gates on stage, Aaron Woodman took the consumer-centric audience through a tour of Vista. "The first thing you'll notice is a fresh user interface," he said. "All the applications are actually surrounded by glass. It gives you the opportunity to see what's in front, but it also gives you a sense of depth and seeing what's happening behind itself."

Microsoft also touted a new generation of Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Centers at the show, though these never really got off the ground in a big way. Meanwhile, Microsoft and Philips announced a Windows Live Messenger telephone that didn't appear until very late in the year. MTV announced its URGE service, which never took off either, though it is installed as a key component of Windows Media Player 11 in Windows Vista.

In mid-January, I met with the folks making Windows Sidebar and Calendar at Microsoft. I expressed my concerns that Windows Calendar was too iCal-like, and was given an XP version of Sidebar to test. Curiously, I never heard more about the XP version of Sidebar, though it's presumably still coming.

In late January, I met with Microsoft co-president Jim Allchin, resulting in my Jim Allchin Talks Windows Vista showcase. Mr. Allchin reiterated that the next Vista CTP, due just after mid-February, would be the first "feature-complete" public release of Vista. An April CTP would be renamed to Beta 2, he said. "Beta 2 is really the culmination of the three previous CTPs," Allchin told me. "It's really just a different approach for developing the product. We think about Windows Vista only in terms of CTPs. But you can think of it as Beta 2, or the final Beta 2, or even as RC0. We think the quality is going to be good enough there that we won't even have to do an RC0 release. And then the next CTP will be RC1."

During our chat, Mr. Allchin highlighted those areas in Vista that he felt were the most dramatic improvements over XP: Safety and security, the new user interface, mobility, and Internet functionality. "Pervasive security and safety is really the big message," he said. "Visualization and organization is the second one. Third, operational costs and the way we we're managing offline work for deployment images, the new events systems, the new remote access tools, the new built-in diagnostic tools, the mobile features, and so on." It's just flat-out simpler, he noted.

"There are some built-in experiences that are just nice, whether you're at home or work," he added. "For certain people, some of those experiences, such as photo management, will turn them on. But for me, it's more about the plumbing over the long haul. If you think about Windows XP, we did a lot for resiliency and reliability [work] in that release. [Vista] is the system that will do that, I hope, for security and safety. As I said, it's unrivaled. However, it won't be unbreakable. I'm not naive. The industry is at the forefront of a long battle on security. Windows Vista is just our next step. It will be a big step, but it's just the next step."

Sadly, one of the key Vista features Allchin showed off at the time, PC-to-PC Synchronization, was later dropped from the product. By this point, Vista had already shed so many features it was hard to keep up with the list. Still, that was a tough one to lose.

In late January, my sources at Microsoft lighted up with some fresh information: Microsoft had actually missed its previous "feature complete" internal milestone of December 31, 2005 and had reset the deadline to January 31, 2006. But that date would be missed as well. Microsoft forked its code branch for the February CTP on January 23 and then planned to ship the release on February 17, 2006. But by January 25, it was clear that the then-current build wasn't up to snuff for the CTP and Microsoft began targeting a different build instead. It was crunch time: The company had promised a feature-complete CTP by a certain time period, but it was proving difficult to bring everything together.

Here's what Microsoft's internal Vista site looked like on January 17, 2005:

By February 3, things were finally getting better. Microsoft had solved the bugs that had been blocking XP to Vista upgrades and the CTP was suddenly back on track. Microsoft issued build 5308 internally as a CTP candidate. Microsoft internal documentation at the time said that the high level goals for the February CTP were:

  • Staged builds for all Client SKUs in English, German and Japanese (including "N"-edition and VL media)

  • Client build must be ready for limited Enterprise and MSIT deployment

  • Un-Staged Server SKU in English

  • P0 IDS roles are Enterprise and MSIT deployment ready

  • Servicing must work

  • Upgrade from XP SP2 must work (EN, x86 only)

  • No other upgrade scenarios are supported (including upgrades to the upcoming Beta2/RC0 milestone builds)

  • Overall Feb CTP quality for all release languages (EN/DE/JP) must be better than 5270 CTP

Ten days later, build 5308 was in the can: Microsoft approved the build as the February CTP release, and only one major bug needed to be fixed before it could be released to testers. "The original plan was to ship the CTP this Friday, 2/17," an internal email reads. "This is no longer the plan. At best, RTM date now is Monday, 2/20. I?ll know where we are after getting the fix tomorrow."

On February 22, 2006, Microsoft released the February CTP to testers. I responded with a massive review and numerous screenshot galleries. The February CTP was an absolute blockbuster, full of new features and surprisingly near-final look and feel. Device compatibility was dramatically improved, as was performance. "The February CTP is a major improvement over previous builds," I wrote at the time. "Indeed, it is the first CTP that I can run regularly, as my main desktop. Suddenly, the impossible is possible. There's a lot to like here."

Microsoft was also allowing testers to install different Vista product editions for the first time with the February CTP. These included the now-familiar Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate editions. (By this time, Pro had been renamed to Business and Small Business had been dropped.) I updated my Windows Vista Product Editions showcase to address these changes.

The February CTP was so big, in fact, that I pushed out my review of that version over a long period of time. In fact, by April, I was still working on the review. But before that review--or another CTP--could be completed, I received word that Microsoft was quickly revving Vista with an interim build based on feedback from the February CTP: Build 5342 would soon be shipped to testers. The following information was communicated internally at Microsoft on March 13, 2006:

"Over last few days, there?s been a lot of questions. Here are some answers to those questions...

  • This release will go to tech beta and a few corp customers only (Not MSDN). They will be advised NOT to deploy this build.

  • Only Ultimate PID will be made available.

  • English x86 and x64 staged builds only.

  • Build-to-build upgrade is not supported (but not blocked). If you have staged 5308 (the Feb CTP), you may try upgrade but you may see issues. Getting build-to-build upgrade is not a goal of this release.

  • XPSP2 to *this release* upgrade will be supported (at least we?ll make the best effort).

  • Server SP1 based XP (x64 XP) to *this release* is NOT supported at all."

On March 21, 2006, I received information about Microsoft's final plans for Vista RTM: Microsoft would release Windows Vista to manufacturing on or before October 25, 2006. This, indeed, was the plan all the way through the end of October. (Ultimately, the company ended up missing that date, but only by a few weeks. We'll get to that later, of course.) In the meantime, here's how Brian Valentine communicated this schedule to the Windows Division that day:

"Since the fall of 2004 we?ve been targeting August as our RTM date," he wrote. "People have been working very hard to deliver the greatest release of Windows yet. However over the last month I?ve heard from many of you that as we drive to close down Beta 2 we need a little more time in order to get the quality bar right. Given this feedback from you, I have been meeting with the [various groups] to drill on all of the project data. What I have heard from everyone is that certain teams need 8 more weeks to get the quality right and confidence is extremely high by all teams that with an additional 8 weeks we will be at RTM quality."

"We?re going to set the launch and RTM dates for Vista today. As of this email, we are committing to RTM Vista on or before October 25th. This will give us the time you asked for to deliver the quality and our marketing team and partners the time they need to execute on a world-wide business launch of Vista with Office 2007 in November and a great world-wide consumer launch of Vista in January. Based on the OEM feedback and our RTM date, splitting the consumer and business launches make a lot of sense.

Let me repeat: We will RTM Vista on or before October 25th."

Here's how the internal Vista Web site looked the following day:

A week later, Microsoft shipped Windows Vista build 5342 to testers (see my screenshot gallery. Rather than write a separate review of the build, I incorporate it into my ongoing February CTP review. Build 5342, after all, was only a small improvement over build 5308 and was considered part of the same release cycle.

And then I did it again. On April 19, I published the fifth and final part of my build 5308/5342 review, which I dubbed Where Vista Fails. The point was to communicate something that had been eating at me for a while: Sure Vista was a great upgrade over XP, but it was taking an egregiously long time to come to fruition. And as I've noted throughout this multi-part look at the development of Windows Vista, Microsoft has certainly dropped plenty of features and broken many of its promised. When you combine these failures with the sheer passage of time, it's occasionally depressing. And when you realize that there was a dark inner core in the Windows Division at the time that was more interested in protecting its turf than in shipping a truly great Windows version, it gets even worse. (Incoming Windows chief Steven Sinofsky has since spent much of 2006 ridding the Windows Division of this deadwood, by the way. I suspect the blood-letting will continue for the next several months.)

Anyway, my problem, of course, is that I can't help myself sometimes. "Promises were made," I wrote. "Excitement was generated. None of it, as it turns out, was worth a damn. From a technical standpoint, the version of Windows Vista we will receive is a sad shell of its former self, a shadow. One might still call it a major Windows release. I will, for various reasons. The kernel was rewritten. The graphics subsystem is substantially improved, if a little obviously modeled after that in Mac OS X. Heck, half of the features of Windows Vista seem to have been lifted from Apple's marketing materials."

"Shame on you, Microsoft. Shame on you, but not just for not doing better. We expect you to copy Apple, just as Apple (and Linux) in its turn copies you. But we do not and should not expect to be promised the world, only to be given a warmed over copy of Mac OS X Tiger in return. Windows Vista is a disappointment. There is no way to sugarcoat that very real truth."

(Looking back, I cringe when I read things like that. I can get overly passionate about technology sometimes.)

I then walked through a series of examples of some of the problems with Windows Vista and concluded with my hope that the debacle Microsoft experienced with Vista wouldn't cause it to shy away from major releases in the future.

The response was instant, predictable, and unwelcome. Microsoft began dissecting my article on the internal Vista aliases immediately. "I hate it when you are right," one Softie told me. "I have to agree with just about everything." I also received some emails and phone calls from various Microsoft executives who wanted to go over some of my concerns. This effort was appreciated, if uncomfortable. To its credit, however, Microsoft worked constructively with me on the issues I raised and repeatedly checked back to see what I thought of the changes they made. This was appreciated, especially with features such as UAC, which were later changed dramatically (and not just based on my feedback, of course: Many complained about UAC in these dark days.)

On April 20, I discovered that Microsoft was prepping a second post-February CTP interim Vista build. "Microsoft now plans to ship Vista build 5365 within the week," I wrote at the time. "Build 5365 will include major changes to the User Account Protection (UAP) feature, my sources tell me. [These changes were unrelated to my complaints, however. --Paul] It is now linked to something called 'Secure Desktop,' which is what the CTRL+ALT+DEL keyboard shortcut will now trigger as well. Microsoft changed the behavior of UAP in order to bypass a potential flaw in the original implementation. It's unclear whether such a major change at this late stage will cause any further delays in Vista's schedule. Other new features in build 5365 include major changes to Windows Backup and the Windows Recovery Environment, and a further deemphasizing of the virtual folders/saved searches functionality, which drops almost all support for keywords."

Microsoft was also preparing to finalize Windows Vista Beta 2 (then set to be build 5372) on May 22, two days earlier than the previous schedule. Microsoft was planning to distribute Beta 2 at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) at the time. Amazingly, it would later make this milestone.

On April 24, Microsoft shipped Windows Vista build 5365 (see my review and screenshot gallery). This build was described internally as the final interim release before the crucial Beta 2 milestone, which would be offered to the public. Build 5365 added the UAC behavioral changes I had previously written about, various changes to virtual folders, new desktop wallpapers, a redesigned Windows Calendar application, automatic disk defragging, and other new features. "As a slice in time, build 5365 shows concrete progress over previous builds," I wrote in my review. "That's a good thing, even if there are some deeper issues with Windows Vista that may not be addressed until a future Windows release."

About those virtual folder changes. You may recall that Microsoft had originally planned to replace Vista's special shell folders--Documents, Pictures, and so on--with virtual folders that would aggregate different documents types regardless of their physical location on the hard drive. That plan was dramatically scaled back over time. In build 5365, Microsoft dropped yet another virtual folder feature from Vista, Keywords. This feature allows users to enter, edit, view and search keywords associated with each document. In build 5365, this feature was renamed to Tags and now only works with Microsoft Office documents, pictures, and Web files, not all document types.

Microsoft also revealed at the time that while the Windows Firewall feature in Vista would indeed be a so-called two-way firewall (offering protection to network traffic moving both in and out of the system), the system would only be enabled for incoming network traffic. This generated a lot of silly press at the time that Microsoft was compromising Windows security in order to please its corporate customers, who apparently wanted the feature turned off.

By early May, analysts at Gartner had begun a Vista Deathwatch, of sorts, claiming that Microsoft would delay Vista again until mid-2007. I believe I've written about this before, but I can't find it anywhere, so here's the scoop: In Spring 2006, Microsoft invited analysts from Gartner to view their internal bug tracking system for Windows Vista, in a bid to convince the firm that Vista was indeed on track. Unfortunately, Gartner viewed this information and came away with exactly the opposite conclusion: Vista, the corporation said, might never ship. Because Microsoft was bound by Gartner's confidentiality agreement, however, it was unable to publicly rebuke Gartner until the firm issued its report and accompanying doom prediction. Internally, however, Microsoft was seething.

"Slip?" one email read. "Don't believe it. Gartner was actually given unprecedented access to the bug database as well as to key Dev leads [in order] to possibly dissuade them from the story."

Meanwhile, Vista build 5381 was starting to churn through the Beta 2 escrow process and Microsoft believed it could make the May 22 schedule. In order to meet the heady requirements for Beta 2, Microsoft was micro-incrementing build 5381 each day, so builds like 5381.1, 5381.2, and so on kept appearing each day.

On May 5, Microsoft quietly released build 5381 to testers. The company had decided that Beta 2 was too important to not have a final pass by a larger audience, so out it went. This was a legitimate surprise to me, as I had received no warning that the release was imminent. (Internally, the build was referred to as the "Beta 2 Preview.") "If you've used build 5365, there won't be many surprises this time around," I wrote at the time. "There are a handful of new wallpapers. The Vista version of Media Center has been updated to allow an Xbox 360 to function as a Media Center Extender. That's about it." I opted not to review this build, but did provide a screenshot gallery. Like Microsoft, I was looking forward to Beta 2. Internally, builds like 5381.5, 5382.0, and 5383 started iterating through the system. (Additionally, the 542x builds were building daily as the RC1 stream.) Microsoft expected Beta 2 to ship to over 1 million people around the world and it was serious about getting it right.

Microsoft briefed me on the record about Beta 2 on May 17. The themes for Beta 2 were sweeping and aimed at a general PC audience, including business users and consumers. Beta 2 was in escrow, I was told, and would be finalized in the next week. A Consumer Preview Program (CPP) would follow, whereby Microsoft would make Windows Vista Beta 2 (and a later RC1 release) available to the anyone that wanted it. Improvements in Beta 2 included better performance, better compatibility, and a better UAC experience, Microsoft said. The company also began talking up its two-phase launch plans: A business launch was due in November, followed by a bigger consumer launch in January. (Contrary to Gartner's fear-mongering, those goals were indeed later reached.)

I received the Beta 2 code over a week before Microsoft shipped it to attendees at the WinHEC trade show and began working on a massive review and a number of screenshot galleries. Beta 2 was a massive release, but it wasn't as stable as the previous interim builds (and, maddeningly, a later interim release that Microsoft shipped just weeks later). "I don't believe that Beta 2 is stable or reliable enough for most people to use in lieu of Windows XP, but its certainly a fine candidate for dual booting, where people can get their feet wet and then return to the comfort and safety of XP when needed," I wrote at the time. "Performance is sub-par, though to be fair, Microsoft hasn't done much performance work yet. That said, Vista is maturing nicely, and while I anticipate some issues, I hope I'll be able to stay in Vista most of the time going forward. My advice to most people, however, is to test it but not get overly aggressive in trying to move to Vista entirely. You'll just end up missing the performance and compatibility of XP at this point."

Beta 2 was indeed released at WinHEC, and Microsoft opened up the build to the public via the CPP on June 8. After years and years of waiting, many people finally got their hands of Vista for the first time. "Microsoft has now kicked off the Windows Vista Customer Preview Program (CPP), providing the broadest access yet to pre-release test versions of Windows Vista," a Microsoft representative told me at the time. "The CPP allows developers and IT professionals who don?t have access to pre-release versions of Windows Vista through other channels to obtain the code and begin their testing. Also as part of the CPP, technology enthusiasts can start testing various consumer scenarios Windows Vista enables. This broad availability of pre-release code represents a significant milestone in the development of Windows Vista and the feedback received from testers will help Microsoft further refine certain areas of the product." In a bid to set expectations properly, I published a showcase explaining what people could expect from the CPP.

Beta 2 wasn't horrible. But it had serious hardware and software compatibility issues, which I fond odd for a public release. It was also horribly buggy, which was curious since previous interim builds were pretty stable. On June 25, Microsoft issued an interim build, Vista build 5465, to testers (See my overview and screenshot gallery). This build wasn't dramatically different from Beta 2 at a high level. But it offered dramatic improvements in reliability, usability, performance, and fit and finish. I wondered why Microsoft hadn't instead shipped this build to the public. Ah well.

As June came to a close, Windows Vista was at a crossroads. The public Beta 2 release, which did indeed eventually reach about 2 million people, wasn't horrible, but later interim releases suggested that Microsoft was capable of so much more. Would the company delay Vista yet again and miss its November and January targets, or would it be able to prove Gartner wrong yet again? We'd find out soon enough, as Microsoft rifled through increasingly solid release candidate builds and steamrolled Vista to completion. But that, of course, must wait for the final installment of Road to Gold: The Long Road to Windows Vista.

Coming soon: Road to Gold: The Long Road to Windows Vista Part 7