Well, it's done. As I write these words, Microsoft is busying putting the final touches on Windows Vista and will announce sometime this week that the product has finally been released to manufacturing (RTM). In the intervening five years of Vista development, we've seen innumerable delays, uncounted broken promises, slews of dropped features, and, in recent days, a cleaning house in the Windows Division that will continue well beyond the publication of this article and the release of Windows Vista. The next Windows, and the one after that, I suspect, will follow a much stricter path and come to market without the convolutions that racked Windows Vista. It remains to be see, however, whether future Windows versions will be as interesting.

Mid-2006

In early July 2006, various Microsoft bloggers revealed that the company was replacing the Windows Vista Basic user interface with a nicer looking version, significantly enhancing the experience users would have on low-end hardware. This seems like a little thing, but for those few without the hardware to run Windows Aero (the so-called "Aero Glass" UI), the changes are astronomical. I was so happy about it at the time that I wrote up a showcase describing the change.

On July 17, Microsoft issued Windows Vista build 5472 to testers (see my overview and screenshot gallery). This was the second interim build since Beta 2 and included mostly fit and finish improvements, such as the previously promised Vista Basic UI. Microsoft asked that I not write a formal review of this build since it was not being widely distributed. I wouldn't have done so anyway, since Vista was cruising toward completion by this point, with no major new features cropping up from build to build.

In late July, Microsoft began talking about Vista upgrade requirements, so I wrote up a handy guide explaining which versions of Windows could upgrade to Vista. Not surprisingly, XP is fully supported, but Windows 2000 is not, though Windows 2000 users do at least qualify for upgrade pricing.

At the Microsoft Financial Analysts Meeting in late July, the company spent considerable amounts of time promoting Windows Vista. "This is the first time we get to a chance to launch Windows Vista and Office 2007, which I actually think are the most exciting releases of both products, maybe ever, but certainly in at least 10 years, 11 years since we launched Windows 95," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said. "[This] marks the beginning of a new era for Microsoft Corporation. Windows Vista and Office 2007 ... are the engines which will enable us in the market to attract interest, to have a platform to talk about and sell add-on offerings. They are incredibly exciting products, and I think as these products come to market, excitement builds around them, the Windows Vista and Office 2007 launches come for consumers at the beginning of next year, we're going to see a lot of enthusiasm around these products and what they can do not only for our customers but also for our shareholders."

Kevin Johnson, the Microsoft co-president of the Platforms & Services Division, said that his company would ship a "Release Candidate 1.0" [sic] version of Windows Vista that quarter. Microsoft was on track for its November and January launches, he reiterated. "As we launch Windows Vista, look, job one, is: We're going to shop a quality product, and when we market and launch this, it's about generating the excitement and the momentum and the enthusiasm around the world for Windows Vista," he said. "There is something for everyone in this product. If you're a user, if you're an IT professional, a developer, an information worker?there is something for everyone in this product. But, as we go generate that excitement, we want to ensure that we also communicate and market the compelling value proposition around our premium SKU mix." (Johnson is a marketing guy.)

At the end of the day, Ballmer apologized for the delays in Vista and said Microsoft would never take that long to ship a Windows product again. "We will never repeat our experience with Windows Vista again, we will never have a five-year gap between major releases of flagship products," he said.

With Release Candidate 1 (RC1) imminent, analysts and pundits from around the Web began weighing in on a pretty obvious debate: Was Vista ready? Would Microsoft be able to ship a product based on the then-current code base and claim it was a massive improvement over Windows XP? At the time, the answer was so obvious. I figured I could write something with less swearing and more humor than my contemporaries. So I wrote up my own tongue-in-cheek Is Vista Ready? showcase. I hope everyone got the joke.

After summarizing the all-too-obvious arguments against Microsoft shipping Vista anytime soon, I launched into my own rundown of Vista's ills. "Is Windows Vista ready?" I asked, rhetorically. "No. God, no. Today's Windows Vista builds are a study in frustration, and trust me, I use the darn thing day in and day out, and I've seen what happens when you subject yourself to it wholeheartedly. I think I've mentioned the phrase 'I could hear the screams' on the SuperSite before. My wife said that to me one day, and she was referring to the sound of me barking some primeval curse at my desktop PC as it succumbed to Vista's stupid slowdowns, crashes, and hang ups for the umpteenth time."

"I don't know how long Microsoft will need to finalize Windows Vista. Ultimately, I just want them to get it right. But if that means January, May, or even August 2007, so be it. But really, who cares what I think? At the end of the day, I'm just an online pundit/beta tester who likes technology a bit more than is healthy." In other words, who cares what I think? Who cares what anyone thinks? Microsoft would ship Vista when it decided it was ready. And no amount of gnashing of teeth from the online punditry was going to change that. Obviously.

On August 14, my sources at Microsoft informed me that the company was in escrow for RC1. According to internal documentation, Microsoft had fixed 2,772 Vista bugs since the code moved into the RC1 code tree and only one day had passed without an RC1-level build. That day, Microsoft pushed Vista build 5520.16384 into escrow for RC1 and was planning a release prior to the Labor Day holiday in the US (typically the first weekend in September). At the time, Microsoft expected to ship RC1 by September 1 and RTM in October.

On August 25, Microsoft shipped Windows Vista interim build 5536 to testers, since RC1 had been pushed back a bit (and was then at build 5552). While it doesn't seem that the release of yet another interim build would be particularly momentous, build 5536 was the defining moment for Windows Vista in 2006, a magical snap of the fingers during which Windows Vista went from "not ready" to "very much ready." The change was as sudden and unexpected as it was welcome.

"And just like that, we can suddenly see the light at the end of the tunnel," I wrote in my review of Vista build 5536. "A pre-RC1 interim build, 5536 ... offers a peek at many of the best changes Microsoft has made to Windows Vista since the lackluster Beta 2 build. Windows Vista build 5536, by contrast, is a humdinger."

Performance was much better. Games, suddenly, worked. User Account Control (UAC) had been further refined to be less annoying. Windows Media Center, suddenly, actually worked. Compatibility, all of a sudden, was incredible.

At the time, the changes in build 5536 were so dramatic they were almost spooky. In an RC1 briefing later, I asked Microsoft about this. "Did you guys just suddenly flip the 'stop sucking' bit?" I asked, incredulous. Later, I would learn that Brian Valentine's late 2005 plan to push Windows Vista to feature-complete status much earlier in the development of the product than ever before deserved the credit. Because users had gotten used to all of the features long before, the changes in reliability, performance, stability, and fit and finish were all the more noticeable as Microsoft turned its attention to those attributes. I still look back on that release with a sense of astonishment.

On August 29, Microsoft announced the pricing for its various Windows Vista product editions. (See my showcase for details.) As expected, the pricing was inline with previous Windows versions, with the so-called premium SKUs, such as Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate, carrying premium pricing as well.

On September 1, 2006, as promised, Microsoft shipped Windows Vista RC1 (see my review and screenshot galleries). Like build 5536 before it, RC1 was a fantastic release, and Vista was finally settling into a comfortable pre-RTM mode. "Microsoft has made dramatic changes to Windows Vista since the May 2006 release of Beta 2," I wrote at the time. "Many of these changes come under the hood. For example, RC1 is noticeably more stable and offers dramatically better performance than does Beta 2. Games, suddenly, work just fine. Microsoft tells me that it expects Windows Vista to run most video games as fast as does XP." Software and hardware compatibility--at least on the 32-bit versions--was excellent. And even the XP upgrade story was good. RC1 was solid, and Vista had entered the home stretch.

Four days later, Microsoft announced the broad availability of RC1 to the Windows Vista Customer Preview Program (CPP), following the May release of Beta 2. Again, millions of people would get access to a pre-release Windows Vista version. And this time, they'd get something truly good. "Microsoft is broadening the scope of the Windows Vista Customer Preview Program, which began last quarter with the release of Windows Vista Beta 2," a Microsoft representative told me. "Microsoft will re-open the program to new participants in the coming days. Over the coming weeks, Microsoft plans to make Windows Vista RC1 available to over 5 million customers worldwide through various other programs."

On September 14, Microsoft began planning a post-RC1 interim build for testers. "[The] next external release to the tech beta community will be based on the build 5728," an internal email reads. "This will be the first public release since RC1. There have been many fixes made since RC1 and getting the right feedback from outside community is critical for our success. We are now in the last phase of the project we've been working on for a long time." Build 5728 (see my screenshot galleries) shipped to testers six days later, incorporating a number of changes based on feedback but no major new features as expected. Microsoft was particularly interested in people testing the XP upgrade scenario. A random group of CPP customers received the build, as did MSDN and TechNet subscribers.

In late September, Microsoft met with members of the mainstream consumer press to push Vista. I attended some briefings with the Media Center and Windows Games teams.

On October 6, finally, Microsoft shipped Windows Vista Release Candidate 2 (RC2) (see my screenshot gallery). In truth, this was just another interim build (5744) but Microsoft was under pressure to deliver something called RC2 so it arbitrarily did so with this build. (Which, it should be noted, underwent none of the normal testing process attributed to a true release candidate.) No matter: RC2, like RC1 before it, was an excellent build with improved fit and finish. Microsoft briefly (and silently) opened it up for the CPP program over a weekend, but shut off the download after 200,000 people had grabbed this release. The company claimed that had been its plan all along.

RC2 was notable only for a few reasons. It was much more complete than previous versions, yes. But it was also the last build that external testers would see before Vista was finalized in mid-November. For the next several weeks, testers, MSDN and TechNet customers, and other users would have to wait, silently, while Microsoft added the final icons, wallpapers, system sounds, and other features to Vista.

A week later, Microsoft also silently issued its revised Windows Vista EULA (End User License Agreement). Online, various analysts, pundits, and reporters got hold of this EULA and compared it to the Windows XP EULA. The shocker: Microsoft had changed a key portion of the EULA to ensure that users could only transfer a retail version of Windows Vista one time, whereas the XP EULA was pretty vague on this. Damning the company for its Orwellian ways, online pundits blasted the company, though it seemed that everyone interpreted the new EULA differently. (Hey, we're geeks, not lawyers.)

I decided to take a different tact: I asked. And, after an hour long conversation with Microsoft about the new EULA, I published an unintentionally Licensing Changes to Windows Vista showcase in which I communicated Microsoft's position on the EULA. Windows enthusiasts were not amused, which makes sense when you consider that this is the crowd that would be most harmed by the new EULA. A few days later, I published an editorial by Koroush Ghazi of TweakGuides.com that presented the opposing view. His editorial, Windows Vista's Enthusiastic Licensing Restrictions, is excellent, and it must have worked because Microsoft announced less than a month later that it was removing the one-time transfer limit. Bravo.

By mid-October, Microsoft decided to end some uncertainties about Windows Vista. The company announced that it would change its next Windows system to meet the requirements of antitrust-happy jurisdictions like the European Union (EU) and South Korea, as well as competitors, such as Adobe, Google, and Symantec. These changes are detailed in my Last Minute Changes to Windows Vista showcase, though it's still unclear if they go far enough to keep Microsoft out of legal hot water in the years ahead.

On October 25, Microsoft announced the long-awaited Windows Vista Express Upgrade program (see my showcase), which allows PC makers to provide free or low-cost versions of Vista to customers who purchase PCs with XP preinstalled during the coming holiday seasons. This so-called "coupon program" was long-expected and no huge surprise to Windows watchers.

And what about October 25? You may recall that Microsoft had long intended to finalize Windows Vista "on or before" October 25. Well, that day came and went without a peep from Microsoft, but I had published information a few days earlier explaining why Microsoft wasn't going to make that date. The problem was a set of unexpectedly buggy pre-RTM build of Vista the week before the 25th. The previous Friday, Microsoft pushed Vista build 5824 into escrow, hoping that the build could qualify as the final shipping version. But a catastrophic problem with the build destroyed any systems that upgraded from Windows XP, requiring complete reinstallations. After several frantic days of trying to find the bug, Microsoft finally fixed the problem last Friday and reset escrow. The previous Friday, Microsoft internally released build 5840, which didn't include the bug. Testing over the weekend produced positive feedback.

At the time, Microsoft had to reset its internal completion clock to November 8. This was, according to internal documentation, the last day that Microsoft could finalize Windows Vista and meet its November and January launch shipment. (I had previously written about this in WinInfo.)

On October 31, Microsoft revealed the final packaging for various Windows Vista (and Office 2007) retail products. Microsoft told me the packaging was mean to evoke the same qualities as the Vista product name, as well as its look and feel.

On Sunday, November 5, 2006, my sources contacted me again: Vista, they said, was almost complete. The RTM version was now expected as early as Monday, November 8 but could occur any day that week. The long road to Windows Vista, it seems, was finally at an end.

The future

Of course, with Windows Vista, nothing really ends. After RTM, Microsoft will ship Vista to its MSDN and TechNet customers within seven days. Business customers with volume license agreements will be able to begin installing the new OS starting November 30. And sometime in late January--Microsoft still isn't saying exactly when--the company will host a gala consumer launch event for Windows Vista.

Before that happens, you can expect to hear more about the Windows Ultimate Extras that Microsoft will supply to Windows Vista Ultimate customers: Those will ship sometime in January. And no, there won't be a Windows Vista Plus! pack: Ultimate Extras is it, and only available to those who pony up for that most expensive Vista version.

Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1, codenamed "Fiji") is due in late 2007 alongside Windows Longhorn Server, as is the next version of Windows Media Center, though Microsoft is still not sure how they'll ship that latter upgrade. Vista SP1, despite the name, is going to be a major upgrade: It will include a new version of the Windows kernel (version 6.1), bringing Vista up to date with the changes Microsoft is baking into the next Windows Server version.

As for Windows Vista R2 (codenamed "Vienna"), I think it's safe to say that the calm and calculating hand of Steven Sinofsky will ensure that this and other future Windows versions will arrive on schedule and be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, upgrades. Sinofsky's record with Microsoft Office is as clear as it is successful, and there's little doubt he'll have a positive effect on the Windows Division.

Sadly, Jim Allchin has pledged to retire when Vista is completed. It's unclear now if this means RTM or general availability, but Microsoft will be worse off for that loss. Mr. Allchin is a smart, technology-driven guy, and he's made the tough decisions about Vista, including the correct decision to restart the project in 2004. The Vista we're getting this year is a direct result of his guidance. He will be missed.

As for me, your humble storyteller, I'm looking forward to some time off. Windows Vista has dominated my time for five of the eight years this site has existed, and five of the 11 I've been doing WinInfo. I've been writing about Windows Vista for so long, it's hard to remember a time when Vista wasn't part of the equation. And now, finally, the story is told. It's not complete--how could it ever be?--and it's very much just based on my own perspective, since I can only mine my own archives. But I hope you've enjoyed it. It was indeed a long road. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat.