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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Microsoft Debuts Sleeker Windows 7 on a Netbook

LOS ANGELES — On Tuesday, Microsoft gave the first full public demonstration of its sleek new Windows 7 operating system to developers. The new operating system is a redesigned version of Vista so streamlined it was demonstrated on a low-powered netbook.

The redesign is an attempt to leave much of Vista’s more infamous features — like clutter, bloat and those annoying alert pop-ups — in the past. The release also contains several user interface enhancements like an updated Taskbar, new animated desktop effects, context-sensitive menus and a smarter desktop search tool.

The demonstration was made at the opening keynote for day 2 of Microsoft’s annual developers conference — this year’s event in Southern California. Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie and senior vice president of Windows engineering Steven Sinofsky took the stage to demonstrate just what was done to Vista to meet the demands of today’s operating system.

As far as performance goes, Sinofsky isn’t willing to offer any hard benchmarks, but he claims Windows 7 shows an across-the-board performance boost over Vista. In fact, Sinofsky demoed the OS using a netbook with a 1-GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM. After booting it, half the machine’s RAM was still available.

Windows 7 may be built upon Vista technology, but this time around Microsoft joins the 21st century by building an operating system that utilizes underpowered and low-cost netbooks and cellphones, sleeker interface interactions and web applications.

“It’s getting harder to find things that haven’t been impacted by the internet in its brief life,” says Ozzie. “To date, we’ve barely scratched the surface of how we can use the PC to extend the value of what we do on the web. It is our objective to make the combination of the PC, the phone and the web of clearly more value to our customers than just the sum of their parts.”

Where Windows 7 stretches to meet this goal is where the biggest change in Microsoft’s traditional way of thinking becomes apparent. In the past, Microsoft has supplied a soup-to-nuts user experience out of the box, with all of the tools for sending e-mail, managing photos, listening to music and editing video included. But for Windows 7, these apps have been stripped out in favor of web applications. Rather than include an e-mail client or a desktop photo manager with Windows 7, Microsoft is encouraging users to make the switch to its Windows Live services, which offer both of those as hosted web apps. New features in Internet Explorer 8, which will ship installed on Windows 7, allow offline access to these apps on the desktop.

“This really represents what we think of as a complete communications and sharing experience across the phone, PC and web,” says Sinofsky.

The user interface enhancements to the Windows 7 desktop are largely intuitive, and they go a long way toward making the OS easier to use. There’s an integrated desktop search tool that learns the more you use it, bringing your most frequent queries to the top of the list. The new Windows Taskbar, which incidentally looks and behaves a lot like the Mac OS X dock, is more customizable. Users can drag and reorder the program icons. The icons are bigger, and hovering over an icon shows a live thumbnail preview of the window. Click on a Taskbar icon and a list of choices specific to that program pops up (Microsoft calls these Jump Lists).

See our companion article, The 7 Coolest Features in Windows 7, for an in-depth look at the user interface enhancements.

There are also some new mouse tricks with the Aero interface that automatically resize windows or make them transparent to expose the desktop. Again, there are no clicks or little icons to drag around — just sweep the windows to the sides or top and bottom of the screen to make them change shape.

Home networking, printer sharing and file sharing, all of which cause nightmares for some, are simplified by a new feature called HomeGroups. Put multiple Windows 7 PCs on a single network and they’ll all find and connect to one another, forming a HomeGroup. Users can then browse all of the media stored across the multiple PCs as though they were all on the same hard drive. Sharing within any folder can be disabled for security reasons.

Sinofsky says Microsoft focused on fundamentals like boot speed and responsiveness in particular, really looking at the Start Menu and Taskbar and performing kernel-level tweaks to make searches and menus respond instantaneously.

The pre-beta version of Windows 7 was released to attendees of Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. A first beta is expected in early 2009 with a final version released later in the year.


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