Back in the DOS days of computing there really was no such thing as task switching. You ran one program at a time and that was it. When you wanted to run a different program, you closed the first one and then loaded the second one. Once we got into the Windows 3.x operating system, we were given the ability to run multiple programs at the same time—and that was a revolutionary change. However, Microsoft didn't provide us with good method for keeping track of or switching between multiple running programs.
Fortunately, in Windows Vista, we are given several very cool, very graphical methods for switching between open windows or tasks. Let's take a look at the evolution of task switching in the Windows operating system and then focus on Windows Vista's new task switching features.
The Windows 3.x days
As you may remember, to display all open windows in Windows 3.x you could use the Cascade or Tile features, but once you minimized a window, it essentially disappeared. At that time, minimized windows actually went directly to the desktop, but they were buried under Program Manager and were completely hidden unless you minimized all open windows, including Program Manager, one-by-one—something that not many people understood at that time.
As Windows 3.x evolved, Microsoft added the Cool-Switch, which was designed to allow you to cycle between all the open programs. To use the Cool-Switch, you simply pressed [Alt][Tab]. When you did, a small window appeared in the middle of the screen that showed one icon at a time. To see more programs, you just continued to press [Alt][Tab]. To select a program, you simply released the keys and that program would come to the foreground. Unfortunately, the Cool-Switch didn't display minimized programs, meaning that you still had to you minimize all open windows in order to access other minimized programs. So switching between multiple running programs still wasn't easy.
When Microsoft introduced Windows 95, one of the key features in that operating system was the Taskbar, which appeared at the bottom of the desktop where it was always visible even when other windows were maximized. With this new feature, every running program, whether maximized or minimize, had a button on the Taskbar, which made it easy to see exactly what programs were running. You could then switch between programs simply by clicking that program's button. The Taskbar finally made task switching a very obvious operation.
In addition to adding the Taskbar to Windows 95, Microsoft also beefed up the Cool-Switch so that its window looked more like an old Program Manager Program Group window and contained icons for all the running programs—including minimized programs. To cycle through the icons, you just continued to press [Alt][Tab]. To select a program, you released the keys and that program would come to the foreground.
Windows 98 thru XP
The Taskbar and Cool-Switch introduced with Windows 95 worked so well that Microsoft basically left them alone in Windows 98, Windows ME, and Windows 2000. Therefore, we never really saw any improvements.
However, when, Microsoft introduced Windows XP, they made a small improvement called taskbar grouping. This grouping feature was designed to reduce the button overcrowding problem that you can experience when you have a large number of applications open at the same time. When Windows XP determines that the amount of available space on the Taskbar begins to dwindle, it starts grouping similar windows under a single button. This single button is then accompanied by an arrow button that, when clicked, will display a menu of all the items in the group.
Of course, the Taskbar and Cool-Switch are still present in Windows Vista, but they have really undergone some amazing transformations—mainly due to all the graphical enhancements in the new operating system. In other words, in order to access these new features, your video card must be running WDDM (Windows Driver Display Model) drivers and be capable of displaying the Aero interface.
Live Taskbar Thumbnails
The Taskbar has been enhanced with the Live Thumbnails feature, which displays thumbnail images of running applications. You just hover your mouse pointer over any button on the Taskbar and you'll see a thumbnail of that window's contents. And best of all, the thumbnails are live and will actually show active operations, such as a download in progress.
The Cool-Switch has been both enhanced and renamed. This feature is now called Windows Flip. Like its predecessor, Windows Flip is designed to allow you to cycle thru all the open programs and is accessed by pressing [Alt][Tab]. However, its interface is fancier, showing both an icon and a thumbnail. In addition to showing icons/thumbnails of open programs, Windows Flip also shows an icon/thumbnail of the desktop, thus allowing you to easily return to the desktop.
Furthermore, once the Windows Flip window is open, you can use the arrow keys to cycle back and forth thru the icons/thumbnails. Another new feature, of Windows Flip is the no graphic option. If you quickly press [Alt][Tab], you can instantly flip back and forth between the two most recently used windows without seeing the Windows Flip window.
Windows Flip 3D
If Windows Flip isn't cool enough for you, try pressing [Windows][Tab] to access the Windows Flip 3D feature. Windows Flip 3D performs the same function as the regular Windows flip, but with some very neat enhancements. To begin with, Windows Flip 3D's interface provides you with an angled, three-dimensional view of all the open programs, as well as the desktop.
With Windows Flip 3D, there are actually three ways to cycle thru all the open programs. You can continue pressing [Windows][Tab], you can use the arrow keys to move back and forth, or you can use the scroll wheel on your mouse. No matter what method you choose, the miniature windows appear to float over the middle of the desktop and rotate, much like a rolodex. Like the Live Taskbar Thumbnails feature, the miniature windows in Windows Flip 3D are live and will actually show active operations.
As I continue to experiment with Windows Vista Beta 2, I'll keep reporting on the new and improved features in this edition of the operating system. As always, if you have comments or information to share about the Live Taskbar Thumbnails, Windows Flip, or Windows Flip 3D features, please take a moment to drop by the Discussion area and let us hear.
Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.