Redmond (WA) - Build 5308 of the Windows Vista is being released to select testers , as promised and on schedule, as Microsoft's latest Community Technology Preview. The key feature of this new build will be the very long-awaited premiere of a feature the company has been tinkering with for several years: image-based installations that install Windows modules to the hard drive not as separate files, but as contiguous disk images, just as though they were backed up from a clean install.
To make the Windows Imaging Format work properly, Vista engineers had to finally scrap the very last vestige of MS-DOS that has been shipped with Windows to this point: the DOS-based installation environment, which actually runs code created for Windows 3.1 to give users a graphical environment for authorizing and launching the installation process. In its place will be, essentially, a new version of the operating system: Windows PE (pre-installation), which presents the shell with which users manage the installation process.
PE will remain available to users after Vista is installed, as a troubleshooting environment to replace the driver-free "Safe Mode" currently used by XP. With the Enterprise editions of the Vista client - which may include two different product tiers, as we inadvertently learned earlier this week - PE will also include a rich set of diagnostic utilities, including a command-line-based tool that will enable administrators to load and test device drivers on local systems on the fly. Coupled with the scripting features of the Monad shell - which is being tested in a separate beta cycle - this could enable an admin to write a script that automatically checks for bugs in the system, and loads or unloads device drivers based on specific conditions.
But the new Windows Image Manager may hog the spotlight from Windows PE for awhile, with some innovative and, perhaps at first, even bewildering new features. Admins using the Enterprise edition will be able to actually create Windows images in the WIM format, that can be deployed throughout a network. These images may contain device drivers, special features, and even policy-based customizations (features that are only available to certain users under certain conditions), all in their pristine, never-before-used state. An admin can assemble these images, and deploy them using a new remote installation environment, using a new software feature of the upcoming "Longhorn" edition of Windows Server, called the Windows Deployment Service. This service is located on a company's server, and enables the complete installation and testing of Windows components throughout the network, remotely.
Admins will also look forward to yet another update to Microsoft Management Console (MMC), which will still be numbered 3.0 despite all the changes. The Group Policy Management Console, which had been an MMC snap-in for free download from Microsoft.com, will now be standard equipment in the new MMC.
And finally, at long last, testers will get to experiment with the gadget that most distinguishes Vista's "Aero" environment from the XP front-end: the new Windows Sidebar, which promises to feature useful gadgets like mail checkers, a clock and calendar, and a built-in RSS news reader. The concept of this gadget dates back to Microsoft's early work with OS/2, back before it was turned over to IBM. OS/2 Warp had a drawer-like feature where the user could store useful, everyday gadgets; Mac OS X has a similar feature today, and Google has been busy for the last several months one-upping Microsoft with its own Google Desktop. Microsoft is promising a vastly revised task scheduler, which may utilize one of its Sidebar's new gadgets, and which may have some impact on whether some users who consider themselves "stuck with" Outlook for lack of a viable scheduling alternative, can finally wean themselves from that product.