Microsoft Readies First Vista Service Pack Beta

After weeks of confusion over when the beta of Windows Vista’s first service pack will see the light of day, Microsoft finally announced a tentative schedule today. The bad news is that the beta is still a ways off.

In fact, the most that Microsoft will say in trying to pin down the start of beta testing for Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) is “in a few weeks.” As to when it will be available as final code, the company is saying that the current schedule pegs “release to manufacturing” or RTM as coming in the first quarter of 2008.

The rumor mill has swirled with stories this summer that the beta of Vista SP1 was imminent. In fact, the company released a pair of updates for Vista early this month that will become part of the service pack.

Today, Microsoft officials also admitted that a “preview” of the beta SP1 has been in limited testing since early this summer. In a few weeks, that will expand to between 10,000 and 15,000 customers and partners, David Zipkin, senior product manager for the Windows client, told

Over time, Zipkin added, the beta will be broadened to include Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscribers.

The arrival of SP1 is considered the starting bell for a lot of major corporate customers to begin evaluating, or even deploying, Vista. That behavior is based on enterprises’ experience with previous Windows releases. The first service pack has come to be seen as the fix for all the things that weren’t quite done when the product was first released, which, in this case, was last November for Vista.

While enterprises appear to be acting no differently than with past Windows releases, Microsoft is still hoping to get business customers off the dime as soon as possible, saying that there is no reason to wait. Indeed, the company has been shipping fixes and improvements all along.

“We’ve already pushed out a couple of hundred fixes,” Zipkin said. Additionally, when Vista first shipped in 2006, 1.5 million devices were supported; now that number has grown to more than 2.2 million.

Microsoft has already sold 42 million copies of Vista via its volume licensing plans, he added. That’s in addition to the 60 million units sold through OEM and retail channels that the company announced it had sold when it held its annual financial analysts meeting in late July, Zipkin said.

Zipkin emphasized that the vast majority of the changes coming in SP1 are simply meant to fix reliability problems and improve performance.

“We’ve learned which crashes and hangs are the most important to users … and that it takes too long to copy or unzip files, and resuming from hibernation or standby,” or to bring up the password prompt, he said.

One new capability that Vista SP1 will provide, however, is the ability to designate Google’s desktop search engine as the user’s default, Zipkin confirmed. That capability is being added as a result of negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice, to deal with antitrust complaints in late June.

Another will expand Vista’s BitLocker disk encryption to support additional disk drives.

Meanwhile, the company is also getting ready to beta test the final service pack for Windows XP. Microsoft would not give a start date for XP SP3’s beta test, either, other than to say it will begin in “a few weeks.” It too has been circulating among a small set of “preview” testers.

One addition coming in SP3 is support for Vista’s Network Access Protection or NAP. The final version of XP SP3 is set to ship in the first half of 2008, Zipkin said.

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