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Ina Fried

Staff Writer, CNET

SAN FRANCISCO–Microsoft is on track to release the first full test version of the next major Windows release by the end of June, a Microsoft executive told CNET on Monday.

The company has said publicly that Beta 1 of Longhorn would arrive by the end of 2005, though internally, the company has been aiming for a release by midyear. The final version of Longhorn is slated for the second half of next year.

“There will be a beta 1 of Longhorn…happening in the first half of this year,” John Montgomery, a director in Microsoft’s developer division, said during an interview at VSLive, a conference devoted to the company’s Visual Studio .Net toolkit. The release will be primarily aimed at developers, Montgomery said. “I do, however, expect that you will find IT departments starting to look at it, kick the tires, figure out what’s in it and what’s not in it.”

Beta 1 will be the first look at Longhorn in its current form. Microsoft released a developer preview version of Windows at the Professional Developers Conference in the fall of 2003 and updated that early code last spring.

However, Longhorn has changed significantly since then, with Microsoft announcing changes in August affecting all three of the key pillars of Longhorn. Two of the components–a presentation engine called Avalon and a Web services architecture called Indigo–are being pulled out of the next Windows release so they can be offered for both Longhorn and the current generation of Windows operating systems.

The third major component, a reworking of the Windows file system known as WinFS, has been delayed past Longhorn’s release and is expected to be in beta testing when Longhorn ships. It is unclear when WinFS will be integrated into Windows itself.

Microsoft has not talked a great deal about what features will be part of the beta release. Montgomery said many of the updates have to do with improving the “operational characteristics” of the operating system–basically making Windows easier to manage and more reliable. Among the changes will be a new model for drivers–the bits of code that allow Windows to work effectively with hardware add-ons such as graphic cards and peripherals.

Another improvement will come in the way businesses are able to install Windows on large numbers of machines. Today, mass deployment is done through a process known as “ghosting” an image of the operating system. An improved method will come with Longhorn, Montgomery said.

Montgomery said Microsoft is on track for two other key releases for this year. The 2005 editions of the Visual Studio programming tools and the SQL Server database are slated to get new test versions in the coming weeks, with final releases scheduled for late summer.

Earlier Monday, Microsoft said that by March, it will release an update to the preview version of Avalon. Servers and tools Chief Eric Rudder is slated to talk about Indigo on Tuesday.