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Monday, March 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft's new Vista should reach store shelves by holidays

Seattle Times technology reporter

A test version of Windows Vista for the general public is likely to come in May rather than April, as originally expected.

But Microsoft's new operating system is still on track to be done and released to manufacturers (RTM) in August, in time for Vista PCs to go on sale during the holiday season, a company manager said at a trade meeting in Bellevue.

"The current thinking is it's highly probable the end of August is RTM, so it's in the market in December," Carter Maslan, director of technical evangelism, told The Indus Entrepreneurs group Thursday night.

Details about Vista were disclosed as Maslan and Microsoft Vice President Sanjay Parthasarathy discussed how entrepreneurs can build businesses around the new platform.

The timing of Vista is of high interest to the tech industry, which is counting on the product to boost sales and create new business opportunities as consumers and companies upgrade their systems.

Microsoft executives have said Vista will go on sale in late 2006 but could be delayed if quality issues arise. It has already been delayed because of security work and an overhaul of Microsoft's development process, and the company hasn't released a new PC operating system since Windows XP shipped in 2001.

Although the exact release date hasn't been disclosed, Microsoft last week started a $500 million advertising and sales effort to build anticipation among business customers for Vista and new Office products coming at the same time.

Microsoft's Aug. 31 RTM target was disclosed last fall in an internal blog posting by Chris Jones, vice president of Windows core-operating-systems development. Maslan said he recently checked with Jones to be sure the target hadn't changed.

But Maslan said the date's not set in stone, and small businesses betting their future on Vista-based products should be "cautious" about the timing.

Maslan also told the entrepreneurs that "with Vista, people are really cutting features to make dates."

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Major features such as a new file system were cut last year to get the product finished, but a spokesman Friday said none has been cut since a "community technology preview" or CTP version was released to business customers last month.

"There's always a possibility that features will change or be cut, but I haven't seen any major features that have been cut since the February CTP, or Enterprise CTP," said spokesman Michael Burk, adding that "we would not make cuts to features to push a date."

Asked for clarification, Maslan said via e-mail that he's not aware of any cuts: "I just know we're managing towards a 2006 release, so would, hypothetically, consider cuts if something were to stand in the way of that."

Consumers will get their first chance to download and sample Vista when a near-final test version is released this spring.

That test version was expected next month, but Maslan called it a "May release."

Software developers and corporate customers have been tinkering with partly complete test versions since July, and they received a "feature complete" version last month.

Microsoft has been vague about upcoming release dates, in part to avoid giving the impression the software is late and to maintain flexibility in case it takes longer than expected to complete.

Windows Co-President Jim Allchin said in January that Vista is on track for holiday 2006 sales, but it could be held back if quality problems arise.

The company recently began briefing industry analysts on Vista but apparently hasn't given them specific ship dates.

"I think they're feeling pretty good about the state of the code at this point," said Dwight Davis at Summit Strategies, who was briefed a few weeks ago. "They're probably building a bit of a buffer for themselves, given their inability to hit the dates in the past."

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

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