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Microsoft Releases New Test Versions of Vista, Office, Server Software

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) launched its second major test version of the Windows Vista operating system on Tuesday as a senior executive said he was "confident" the company will meet its targeted release date.

The world's largest software company also said it was starting trials of its upcoming Office 2007 business software suite and its Windows Server system code-named "Longhorn" (which, confusingly, was once Vista's code name).

The next version of Windows is called Vista and will be the first major overhaul in five years of the operating system, which sits on 90 percent of the world's computers and accounts for nearly a third of Microsoft's total revenue.

The follow-up to the current Windows XP offers beefed-up security, translucent windows for easier scrolling and can display and record high-definition television on the computer. It also allows the user to search for information on the PC and across the network.

Microsoft originally targeted a 2005 launch for Vista, then pushed the release out to 2006 before announcing in March that Vista would again be delayed.

Microsoft set a January 2007 launch for retail consumers and it pushed back the launch of Office 2007 to move together with Vista.

Long-time Windows chief Jim Allchin said Microsoft is confident it will meet its launch target, even though other Windows releases have undergone a longer gap between second test release and the start of production.

"At the top level, [this test version is] better quality than most things we've released before," Allchin, co-president of the company's Platforms & Services Division, said in an interview.

Earlier this month, research group Gartner Inc. (IT) said the company likely would delay the new Windows launch by at least three months because it is so complex.

Gartner had expected Microsoft to release the second major test version or "beta 2" of Vista during the current quarter.

"Our position has been that we believe it will ship in wide release nine to 12 months after beta 2," said Michael Silver, research vice president at Gartner. "We still think there are significant challenges."

Windows Vista, Office 2007 and "Longhorn" represent a set of crucial new product releases for the company's effort to stimulate sales growth and jump-start a stock that has underperformed every major U.S. stock index since 2002.

"Each of these is a very important product," said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, adding that they were the company's "three most important products."

Allchin, who announced last year that he planned to retire once Vista was complete, said the company is better able to track the trouble spots users encounter within the Vista test and assign engineers to fix the bugs.

Microsoft has "thousands" of engineers working around the clock to fix problems. Allchin said the company aims to improve Vista's compatibility with certain applications, performance and the ability of users to upgrade from Windows XP.

Allchin said he would not hesitate delaying the release of Vista again if the product's quality were not up to par.

"We took a lot of pain for moving the date before, but quality will remain the top thing. However, we feel very good about where we are at," said Allchin.