Microsoft ( MSFT) lifted the curtain a little higher on its next operating system Wednesday with the release of its first beta version.

Microsoft said beta 1 of Microsoft Windows Vista, previously code-named Longhorn, improves security, manageability and performance. Windows Vista will also include a new user interface, but beta 1 offers only an early peek at some of its features.

The release of the first beta version of Windows Vista comes one day before Microsoft is scheduled to meet with investors at its annual analyst day in Redmond, Wash. Analysts and investors are looking to the new Windows operating system, scheduled for final release at the end of next year, to be a major earnings boost for the world's largest software company -- and translate to a much-needed bounce in its languishing stock.

Vista will be Microsoft's first major update for its Windows franchise -- the company's cash cow -- since Windows XP came out in 2001.

Until now, however, details about Windows Vista's features have trickled out only in bits and pieces. In a detailed fact sheet released Wednesday, Microsoft detailed some specific improvements in the new operating system.

On its Web site, Microsoft offered photos of the new user interface, which includes more transparent, glass-like Windows and more animation. Microsoft also has redesigned the Start menu to make it easier and faster for users to find specific applications and browse all programs.

In addition, Microsoft has developed a new quick-search box that enables users to search large amounts of content -- a move intended to address competition from search leader Google ( GOOG). Microsoft also is introducing a new organization concept called Virtual Folder, which it says is a saved search that automatically and instantly runs when a user opens a folder.

In a surprising bow to the competition, meanwhile, Microsoft is including AOL search, AskJeeves, Google and Yahoo! searches in a toolbar search box in Internet Explorer 7 -- the next version of its Internet browser included in Windows Vista beta 1.

Other features in Windows Vista beta 1 include:

  • In security, new user account protection features to allow a PC's administrator to limit a machine's other users to specific applications. Other features would prevent security-compromised computers from connecting to an internal network unless security criteria are met.
  • Also, in security, anti-malware features to detect and remove worms, viruses and other malicious software during an upgrade. On first glance, it may look like such features will step on the toes of security software vendors such as Symantec (SYMC) and McAfee (MFE). But in fact, it's not clear that Microsoft will offer the same steady stream of software updates delivered by the security vendors whenever a new threat crops up.
  • In manageability, new technology to minimize reboots when installing software.
  • In performance, quicker startups with startup applications happening in the background while users perform their desired tasks.
  • Microsoft is expected to release a more detailed beta of Windows Vista at its annual developers conference in September in Los Angeles.

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