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Microsoft

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introduced the first beta release of the next version of the Windows operating system, which will be distributed to key partners and customers, as well as to more than 200,000 software developers, to gather feedback and enable compatibility testing.

The Redmond, Wash., software company said the operating system, code-named "Whistler," is the first 64-bit version of Windows that will be available to customers for early evaluation purposes on Intel Itanium-based systems.

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Microsoft plans a phased release of Whistler, beginning with the desktop products and followed by the server versions. Both desktop and server versions are expected to be generally available in the second half of 2001.