Microsoft released a test version of WinFS, its next-generation file system, yesterday, well ahead of schedule.

The software giant made the first beta of the new file system available to MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) subscribers, according to a company spokesman. Developers had not expected to see a test version of WinFS until next year, on the basis of a previous timeline provided by Microsoft.

WinFS will not be a part of the next version of Windows, Windows Vista, when it ships at the end of next year, but will be available to the OS (operating system) as an add-on release sometime in 2007, said Quentin Clark, director of program management for WinFS at Microsoft.

The technology was originally scheduled to be part of Vista but Microsoft cancelled that plan in August 2004. WinFS promises to make it easier for users to search and organise their files on the Windows OS, Clark said.

When Microsoft first introduced WinFS in 2003, the firm said it would include a new synchronisation engine that could index a host of disparate Windows files - such as photos, emails, MP3s and documents - in a way that would enable users to more easily search and catalogue these files on their PCs, said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research.

"Originally there were capabilities around synchronisation and search, among others, that looked very promising," he said.

However, with the changes Microsoft has made to the availability of WinFS since then, it has become unclear what features will be available in the final offering. The beta (or test) version may answer some of these questions, Wilcox said.

The beta of WinFS includes a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) and schemas that allow developers to start working with the new file system and get accustomed to the new data model.

Microsoft is putting a lot of thought and care into WinFS because it will drive Windows for a whole new generation of users, Clark claimed. "As a file system technology, it’s important we get it right," he said.

Microsoft will also ask for developer feedback on the WinFS beta at its Professional Developers Conference, which will be held in Los Angeles from 13 to 16 September. The company will not make another beta release available this year, but expects there will be several more test versions of WinFS released between the initial beta and the final release of the file system, Clark said.