Building a better UI

If you were designing the interface for the next version of Windows, what features would you include? That's what Ed Bott recently asked members—and the responses run the gamut from an integrated Office Shortcut Bar to better Registry management tools.

I've spent the past month or so tinkering with Beta 1 of Whistler Personal and Professional Editions. These are rough versions of Microsoft's next Windows release, due to replace Windows 2000 and Windows Millennium Edition sometime in 2001. As I noted in an earlier column, this sweeping operating system update includes options for two different interfaces: a newly designed front end intended for nontechnical users and the "classic" Windows 2000 interface. Surprisingly, Microsoft's product managers say they'll be redesigning the interface up until the last weeks of development. That's an opportunity for people like you and me to make a difference. So I asked TechRepublic members to take a crack at overhauling the Windows desktop, and I received an overwhelming response.

The sheer breadth of suggestions for interface enhancements proves to me that anyone who tries to design a one-size-fits-all Windows UI is doomed to fail. Some of the suggestions I received could rightfully be called idiosyncratic or esoteric, reflecting the sort of minor annoyances that drive Windows users crazy. (One TechRepublic member suggested, apparently with no irony intended, adding the Office Assistant—aka "that accursed paperclip!"—to the Windows interface. Presumably, that decision would be shouted down by the majority of Windows and Office users.) However, despite the diversity of the responses, a few persistent themes did emerge:
  • Most surprising (at least to me) was the strong show of support for making the Office Shortcut Bar an official part of the Windows UI. TechRepublic member lynn_greiner spoke for several peers: "I make extensive use of the Office Shortcut Bar, so that all the things I use regularly—including shortcuts to admin tools, certain applications, and template documents—are handy, yet not in the way. I'd like to see that feature moved into Windows and made easily customizable." In the early prototypes I've seen, a Favorite Programs panel that offers some of this functionality is included in the new UI.
  • TechRepublic member Lucky Max sent along a lengthy laundry list filled with great ideas, including customizable Active Desktop templates, the ability to edit a Registry subkey without opening (and possibly corrupting) other settings, the ability to save and restore Registry snapshots, resizable dialog boxes, a Minimize To Tray command, customizable Windows key shortcuts, and the ability to dynamically load/unload Windows fonts. Max, you'll be pleased to know that some of those features, including a Windows 2000 System Restore utility for preserving Registry snapshots, are indeed scheduled to appear in Whistler.
  • Some Windows purists still object to the integration between Internet Explorer and the Windows Explorer. CzarKasm suggests that Windows 2000 is a great opportunity to "get rid of that wretched 'View As Web Page' default behavior for Windows Explorer. It wastes a large piece of screen space and generally slows things down when moving around." Personally, I like Web view for some tasks, but I, too, would love to see a list-based Explorer view that works as fast as the old File Manager utility.
  • Most Windows administrators, I suspect, would appreciate a more modular approach to setup than the all-or-nothing option offered by Windows 2000. TechRepublic member omen delivered a top 10 list that included the ability to “drastically restrict the actual files and subsystems loaded.... If I want to install a server, I generally expect to administer it remotely, and I do not need DirectX, OpenGL, [and other] multimedia stuff. Also, make choosing a standard security configuration part of the server setup."
  • My favorite suggestion? Better tools for managing the Windows Registry. TechRepublic member Lyf made a strong case for better, more granular Registry editing tools: "There is no reason MS could not visualize application values in the registry. If they can be uninstalled, they can certainly be presented in an intelligent and useful manner and opened up for safe editing. MS should also include an Application Registry Migration Wizard to use when installing/reinstalling the OS. This would facilitate full recovery of application settings without a complete manual reinstall." Hear, hear! Several third-party programs (including the excellent Desktop DNA from Miramar Systems) already perform this function, but it should be built into the OS.

Thanks (and a heaping helping of TechPoints) to everyone whose contributions appeared in this week's column.

Here's Ed's new Challenge
As the recent break-in at Microsoft's network demonstrated, all it takes is one lousy password to give a cracker unbridled access to an entire network. How do you protect your network from users who insist on using weak, easily guessed passwords? Do you try to balance password security with user convenience? Do you have standards for password length and complexity? Do you force users to change passwords regularly? Are you seriously considering smart cards or other authentication devices? I'm looking for real-world solutions that Windows 2000 administrators can use. Ready to share your solutions with fellow network administrators? Then click here to tackle this week's Microsoft Challenge.

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