Microsoft

10 things I'd like to see in the next version of Windows

Now that IT pros have started kicking the Windows 7 tires, it makes sense to consider the next round of improvements. Alan Norton shares his list of the changes he hopes to see.

Now that IT pros have started kicking the Windows 7 tires, it makes sense to consider the next round of improvements. Alan Norton shares his list of the changes he hopes to see.


With the recent release of Windows 7, I thought that this would be a good time to look ahead to the next version. Here is my wish list of features I would like to see added and the changes made to existing functionality. I have little doubt that you will have alternate suggestions of your own, and I would like to hear them in the forum.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: A smaller footprint

Let's get real-world for a moment. Vista and now Windows 7 have reached the size limit for dial-up users. The huge service packs and updates are the problem (Figure A). Millions are still using dial-up and downloading the updates following a clean reinstall can take days to complete.

Figure A

As of September 25, 2009, a new installation of Vista Ultimate x64 required downloading 334.9 - 392.0 MB of updates for my system.

The exponential growth from NT to XP to Vista can't continue. If the next release of Windows is better and bigger, a warning statement should be listed on the box: A broadband connection to the Internet is recommended.

I should note that Windows 7 is similar to Vista in its overall installed size. That is definitely a good thing.

2: An alternative to the Start button and desktop shortcuts

How many times have you had to minimize or move a window to get to a shortcut? How about a more convenient way to launch any program? Here is a possible solution and how I envision it working. The middle button of the mouse would open an icon view where you could select and add your favorite program shortcuts — no need to clutter your desktop with all those shortcut icons. A toggle button or Start icon would allow you to switch to the familiar Start menu. For two-button mice, the option could be accessed by clicking the right button.

Microsoft says that Windows 7 addresses the desktop shortcut issue by allowing users to pin desktop shortcuts to the Taskbar. I have 22 icon shortcuts on my desktop. When I tried to pin them to my Taskbar, I found three that could not be pinned — one of them being a shortcut to a text file I use to keep notes and edit in Notepad. The Recycle Bin and the MySQL Command Line Client icons could not be pinned to the Taskbar either. Personally, I find the combination of open windows and program launch shortcuts confusing, but perhaps that will change with time. (For more information on the Windows 7 Taskbar, see the article Changes to the Windows 7 Taskbar You Should Know About and Ed Bott's video demo.)

The solution I am proposing would keep icons hidden for a much cleaner look. A simple click of the middle button on the mouse would pop up an icon list or menu wherever the cursor is on the desktop and give instant access without having to move the cursor to the Taskbar or Start menu.

3: A replacement for WGA

I skipped the upgrade from NT to XP. The reason? I thought that XP's WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage) was a time waster and a hassle I didn't need. I was right. When I finally broke down and purchased Vista, I was able to activate online two, maybe three times before the process of installing SP1 beta broke the online activation process. Yes, I am one of those geeks who is always reinstalling Windows.

No solution will be perfect, but a better solution to this productivity killer must exist. For example, Windows could ship with a customized flash drive or dongle that contains the license information and install files. You could simply insert the flash drive during Windows installation.

For information about how WGA has changed in Windows 7, see Windows Activation Technologies: Activation and Validation in Windows 7. One of the changes is the name —Windows Activation Technologies for Vista and Windows 7.

4: Improved Windows installer

Do a custom Windows reinstall to a partition with a Windows installation and the installer will create a Windows.old folder. Somewhere in there, your precious data is lurking. In addition to Upgrade and Custom, add a new option, Reinstall, to the Windows Installer.

Registry information for apps, app files, user preferences, and configurations could be exported to a flash drive or second partition and imported during the reinstall. Other user data, like IE bookmarks, cookies and RSS feeds, and emails from Outlook Express, Outlook, or MS Mail, could also be exported. The installer could then format the partition and reinstall Windows with programs, user-specific data, and preferences intact.

A screen should be added allowing users to deselect Windows components they don't want to install. The option to install those same components could be included in Windows for those who later change their mind.

5: Removing support for 16 bit and 32 bit

The average Windows user may be unaware that all 32-bit versions of Windows support 16-bit and 32-bit software and that the 64-bit versions support both 32- and 64-bit software. One way to reduce the size of the next release of Windows would be to ship and integrate a 16/32-bit version of XP and support only 64-bit software. This could be done with improved virtualization technology or similar new technology.

There are some good reasons to do this. For the foreseeable future, there will be legacy 16- and 32-bit software that must be supported. Use a proven and efficient OS like XP to do so. Microsoft could drop the Windows on Windows concept and focus on supporting only 64-bit software.

Major problems would have to be resolved, not the least being seamless integration for the average user. Support could be a real problem, too. But if done right, it could be a model for smaller and simpler releases of Windows in the future.

6: Simple backup and archive manager

I have to confess that I have never used Windows Backup and Restore Center. I knew it existed. I just never heard anybody say that they actually used it.

I took a first look at it for this article. You must use the Restore feature to extract a folder or file from the backup. An option to simply copy the folders, files, and full path structures to one backup folder and mark them as backup copies could be added. This would eliminate the need for the Restore feature and make the backup files more accessible to other operating systems. An option for compression could be included.

I have a folder called Downloads, where I keep apps and driver files I download from the Internet. I also have a folder called Archive, where I move the same apps and driver files when I download newer versions. I would like to be able to schedule an archive of the Downloads folder that moves files that meet certain criteria (date created, date modified, date accessed, archive attribute, etc.) to an archive folder, plus the ability to manually mark a file or folder for archive. Oh yes, you have probably never used it, but there is a Date Archived file attribute.

7: Decimal capacities and measurements

I recently wrote an article detailing the confusion that is caused by reporting some measurements using decimal prefixes and some measurements using binary prefixes. Standardizing all Windows capacities, memory sizes, and data transfer rates using decimal prefixes would eliminate the confusion that exists today.

8: A better defragmenter

Beginning with Vista, the graphical interface that shows you the defragmentation progress is gone (Figure B). Windows Disk Defragmenter has now become a scheduled task that occurs in the background.

Figure B

Windows Disk Defragmenter shows logical drive C: 2% fragmented.
A good defragmenter moves all fragmented segments or blocks so they are contiguous with other segments for any given file (defragmentation) and moves files so they are contiguous (consolidation or compaction). Some use optimization techniques. What exactly does the Disk Defragmenter do? Does it do its job well? Without a graphical interface (Figure C), it's impossible to tell.

Figure C

Auslogics Disk Defrag shows logical drive C: 13% fragmented.

Did you know that Vista's and Windows 7's defrag, by default, performs only a partial defragmentation? Microsoft calls this behavior a feature.

An Advanced tab on the Disk Defragmenter could be added with options to analyze and defragment all, or other advanced options. For example, one useful option would be to defrag the system drive on shutdown, which would allow for defragmentation of the paging file and the MFT. Please bring back the graphical interface!


Notes

For Microsoft's take on the Disk Defragmenter, see Don't judge a book by its cover - why Windows Vista Defrag is cool. The defrag utility can be used from the command line with elevated privileges to:

  • Get more detailed analysis using defrag /a /c /v
  • Do a full defrag on all drives with additional information using defrag /c /v /w

If you're looking for a better free defragmenter, try MyDefrag. Formerly JkDefrag, MyDefrag performs defragmentation, consolidation, and optimization and includes a graphical display. It is thorough but slow.


9: Firewall, antivirus, and malware

Windows Vista comes with a basic firewall and a more advanced MMC snap-in. Malware protection is provided via a utility called Defender. One wonders why antivirus software was left out if security was the primary consideration, but it was.

I don't trust Windows Firewall. I use Comodo Internet Security (CIS) instead. An animated icon (Figure D) shows me data traffic coming in and leaving my computer. I can view the active connections and the bytes in/out for each connection. It tells me how many intrusion attempts were blocked, and I can get detailed information for each. This gives me some of the visibility missing from Windows Firewall.

Figure D

The CIS notification icon shows data being downloaded to and uploaded from your PC.

How many Windows users have no antivirus software? The answer might be downright scary. As much as I hate to say this, Windows should ship with antivirus software, including efficient real-time protection. The option to download a virus definitions update file is essential.

While writing this article, I ran across Microsoft's free antivirus and malware software called Microsoft Security Essentials, and a virus definitions update file is available for download. Is Microsoft's foray into the free antivirus software market a sign that it will be included in the next release of Windows?

And what about Defender? I know I routinely receive updates but I have no idea if my system has ever been defended from anything.

10: A replacement for Task Manager

Task Manager was first released in NT 4.0. Although new features were added in Vista, it has remained essentially the same since its release in 1996. Call me paranoid, but if I see my hard disk light blinking when the system should be idle I want to know why. If I see network activity to or from the Internet when there shouldn't be any, I want to know what connections are active and who is being contacted.

There are some new tools that could monitor the system status, like a system status panel that could be docked to the edge of the desktop. Here are a few of the items I would like to monitor:

  • Show all open connections, the app/process that opened them, and their WhoIs information — organization name, IP location, and blacklist status
  • A list of processes that aren't automatically run at startup or other subsets — new processes highlighted
  • Scheduled tasks, their schedules, real-time activity, if any, and completion status with details
  • Processes exceeding user-defined thresholds
  • Network, CPU, and memory utilization
  • System cautions and warnings
  • App notifications, i.e., update status (replaces balloon notifications)

Yes, I am aware of the Resource Monitor. It is an excellent tool for showing detailed system information. I would like to see a tool that combines the functionality of the Task Manager and summarized system status information available in the Resource Monitor. It should be customizable with the option to easily view detailed information.

I recently noticed unusual Internet activity. The Comodo Internet Security animated notification icon showed a lot of data being downloaded to my PC and I didn't know what or why.

I opened the CIS Active Connections window (Figure E) to find that the Adobe Reader was busy updating itself. There was no notification icon informing me of the update. This is a good example of the type of status that I would like to see in a system status panel.

Figure E

The CIS Active Connections window.
After installing Security Essentials for testing purposes, I performed a full scan. Once the scan completed, my hard drive was busy and system performance was sluggish. I started Task Manager (Figure F) and found MsMpEng.exe (Windows Defender AntiMalware Service Executable) consuming up to 47% of my Intel Q9650 CPU resources. This is exactly the kind of task I want to see highlighted in a system status panel with information alerting me to the unusual activity.

Figure F

The process MsMpEng.exe was consuming 46% of my CPU resources and was disk I/O intensive, but I had to start Task Manager to find out why my system was slow.

The final word

The last three items in the list share a common thread: transparency. For security reasons, I want to know what my OS is doing. I have found myself looking more than ever at third-party software because many of the tools that come with the operating system are average in performance at best and don't do what I want them to. That is a hard statement to make for someone who has had so much respect for Microsoft over the years.

I understand that the 80/20 rule probably applies here — 80% of the people using Windows don't care what the Disk Defragmenter is doing, what processes are running, or who is trying to connect to their computer. They trust Microsoft's software. I don't because I don't know what it is doing. Perhaps a favorite quotation of former U.S president Ronald Reagan says it best:"Trust, but verify."

Microsoft seems to be moving Windows toward a black box built for the masses. The next release would be a good time to add some windowpanes to the black box to allow a view in and some information out.

Author's note: I want to give a special thanks to Microsoft for its feedback on this piece during a very busy time.


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About Alan Norton

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

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