updated 2/22/2006 6:21:20 PM ET 2006-02-22T23:21:20

Microsoft Corp. is giving businesses a preview of Vista, the next version of its flagship Windows operating system.

Microsoft has invested heavily in adding features that will make it easier and less expensive for companies to keep their computer networks secure and working smoothly, said Brad Goldberg, general manager for Windows product management. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

In a conference call Wednesday, Goldberg said the new operating system would allow people to log onto their office's system remotely without needing to connect through a virtual private network, or VPN, which some users find cumbersome.

Other improvements he noted include:

  • Safer Web browsing with the inclusion of Internet Explorer version 7.
  • Easier installation of software fixes, known as patches, to protect computers from attacks.
  • Improved user account control to let more workers do things like install printer drivers without being set up for administrator access, thereby limiting such access to those who truly need the higher-level functions. It's harder for attacks to spread on computers that don't have administrator access.

Goldberg said the test is being made available to about 500,000 select customers, and the company plans to release the preview to a broader consumer test audience in its next fiscal quarter, which begins in April.

The Redmond-based company remains on track to have Windows Vista in stores in the second half of the year, Goldberg said. Last week, Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos said the company hopes to have it on store shelves in time for the U.S. holiday season, which typically begins around Thanksgiving.

Microsoft, the world's largest software company, is facing competitors such as Google Inc., whose products threaten Microsoft both on and off the desktop.

More companies are offering free online services that used to be available most conveniently on the desktop, such as e-mail or word processing. Analysts say those services could pose real problems for Microsoft.

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