During the keynote on Tuesday, Ray Ozzie made a point of stressing the advantages of each of three user interaction modes: desktop, phone, and web; and all the speakers’ topics revolved around this central theme. The key points were that systems which use all three are capable of delivering the greatest value, that providing an integrated experience across all three will become increasingly common, and that Microsoft is committed to encouraging these platforms to work together. This will be accomplished through Windows Azure (cloud services), Live Services, SQL Services, and so on. (See my article on Windows Azure for more details.)
Ray Ozzie did a great job presenting. I’ve seen Bill Gates speak, and while he’s obviously very intelligent, he left a lot to be desired when it came to projecting a presence in front of an audience. I have a lot of faith in Microsoft under Ray’s direction; he’s obviously a charismatic leader with a passion for technology and the value it provides. Humorously enough, Ray’s favorite big word during his Tuesday keynote was “nascent”, which became a talking point for several of the speakers: notably Don Box and Chris Anderson. So let’s talk more about these nascent technologies!
The Taskbar & UAC Improvements
You have to admit, in looking at the taskbar of Windows 7, that it looks a bit more like the Mac’s. Icons can be reordered by dragging them, similar to Taskbar Shuffle, and text describing the task name is conspicuously absent. This is a welcome change; as many windows as I have open throughout the day, this text and the horizontal space it occupies has always been a nuisance, especially as it becomes squished and abbreviated to the point of uselessness. The icons can be large or small, and the space between them adjusts depending on how many there are.
Just as multiple windows in the same application can be grouped together in the taskbar, windows are grouped into these new icon-only buttons. Hovering over one brings up a submenu in the form of a set of large window thumbnails. Hovering over one of these brings that full window temporarily into view. You can also close any of these windows from their thumbnail representation (with a small X that appears when hovered over). Although it sounded like a good idea when window grouping was announced for Vista, I’ve always found the actual implementation annoying, and I always turn this feature off, but Windows 7 provides a superior experience of grouping windows that I’m actually looking forward to using.
System tray notifications can be customized, putting the user in complete control over these pop-ups. You can even control which icons, on an individual basis, appear in your system tray, and which remain hidden. This is a subtle change, but is nevertheless nice if you have a lot of these icons.
User Access Control (UAC) has also been improved. A joke was made of the negative feedback they had received about this intrusive feature, and in response, Microsoft has now included a way to control the level of protection UAC provides, similar to the security level in Internet Explorer.
Media, Multiple Monitors, and Multi-Touch Support
Media in Windows 7 can be shared across all computers in your house. You can play them from Windows Explorer, Media Player, and a lightweight version of Media Player. Music, videos, and other media can be played to a specific device, such as another computer, or on your home entertainment system. A new Explorer context menu option named Play To provides a list of discovered devices.
As a user and strong supporter of multiple monitors, some of the most exciting announcements were the improved support for multiple monitor scenarios. There have been several enhancements to multiple monitor setup and configuration, including support for connecting to multiple projectors for presentations. This feature was demonstrated and used during the keynote itself. Another impressive addition is support for multiple monitors in Remote Desktop. Hopefully this ability will also filter down to Vista and XP.
The multi-touch HP computer was shown off, which has been commercially available for about $1,500. Special drivers and updates have been made to enable touch for things like scrolling through lists and other containers, without applications needing to be aware of the multi-touch hardware, and applications taking advantage of the new Windows 7 multi-touch API can do more, such as the pinch gestures for zooming or throwing objects around the screen with simulated physics effects. The HP computer uses two cameras in the upper corners of the screen, which means it is subject to shadow points that four-camera and (to a greater extent) rear-projected multi-touch panels do not have. Shadow points occur when one touch happens higher on the screen (within view of the cameras), and a touch or motion occurs below that, obstructed by the higher touch point. Some of this can be compensated for by algorithms that make good guesses of touch and motion based on position, velocity, and the assumption of continuity of motion, similar to the way our own brains fill in details that we’re unable to perceive.
The primary disadvantage of the HP touch computer is the tight coupling between the multi-touch screen and the rest of the computer hardware. I personally feel this is a bad design, though I’m sure it serves some business need to lock in consumers to HP computers at least this early in the game, when there aren’t many multi-touch monitor options out there. At the Windows 7 booth on the conference floor, however, they did have a 42 inch LG monitor set up with a multi-touch add-on screen that fit right over the monitor. The company that manufactures these, NextWindow, has offerings for screens as large as 120 inches, and companies like Identity Mine are already developing software for these units.
Surface was a big hit. With multi-person games to play, a photo hunt for attendees at PDC, and hands-on labs to explore multi-touch development, everyone got really got into these fun devices, which were scattered all over the conference. I believe there was one at Tech Ed, but they really went big for PDC. Unfortunately, these table devices have a price tag of about $13,500. So compared to open source versions that go for $1,500 (albeit with some assembly required), and other options like the overlay screens offered by NextWindow, I won’t be jumping into Surface development anytime soon.
The application in the photo below is a digital DJ. Sound loops can be tossed into the center. Outside the circle, they’re silent. The closer they get to the center of the blue area, the louder and more dominant they are. Different styles of music were presented, and here we were playing some funky techno.
Microsoft Research’s keynote presentation on Wednesday was really fantastic. In addition to a new version of the World Wide Telescope (which has the potential to change the way students discover, explore, and learn about astronomy), they revealed a new technology (in early stages) called Second Light, which builds upon Surface, and is able to project two images: one of them which you see on the surface computer itself, and a second that only becomes visible when another diffuse surface is placed above the Surface table. This can be a cheap piece of plastic or even some tracing paper. One example displayed satellite images on the primary surface, and when the tracing paper was moved above it, you could see a map-only view overlaid on top. The amazing part was that you could raise the second surface off the table, into the air, and place it at virtually any angle, and the Surface computer compensated for the angle by pre-distorting the image. In addition, when using a piece of plastic, the infrared camera was able to perceive and interpret touch and multi-touch on the second surface that hovered several inches or better off the table!
Devices and Printers
Devices on your network, such as printers and other computers, appear in a nice visual explorer where they can be manipulated. When a laptop is moved from your home to your office (and back), your default printer will change depending on your current environment. Will they do the same thing with auto-detection of monitors, including multiple-monitor arrangements? Let’s hope so!
Performance & Miscellaneous
Windows Seven uses the same kernel and driver model that Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista uses, so there will be no need for a huge reworking of these fundamentals. However, a great deal of work has gone into, and continues to be done, in the areas of optimizing performance and minimizing resource requirements: for Windows startup, application startup, and much more. Windows 7 was shown running on a tiny Netbook, running at 1 GHz with 1 GB of RAM. Try doing that with Vista!
Virtualization is another key technology with many improvements, such as Window 7’s ability to boot off virtual hard drives, the ability to keep a boot image frozen (see my article on setting up such an environment with VMWare in this article), and application virtualization (versus whole-machine virtualization). Any virtual hard drive file (a .vhd) can be mounted in the Disk Management Utility.
Windows 7 promises a lot of great new features. Whether they’ll be compelling enough for businesses to upgrade from XP and Vista, especially for those that didn’t see the ROI on Vista, we have yet to see. As a lucky attendee of the PDC, I’ll be running the Windows 7 CTP they gave me to learn all I can about it. As I discover both its great features and buggy failures, I’ll be writing more about it. For the rest of you, it will be available around April 2009 when it reaches beta release.