Microsoft's PDC Potpourri

While not game-breaking in their own right, these little titbits complete the picture from Microsoft's recent PDC conference at Los Angeles.

While not game-breaking in their own right, these little titbits complete the picture from Microsoft's recent PDC conference at Los Angeles.

Compatibility: the rule that Microsoft is using for Windows 7 compatibility is: "If it works on Vista, it works on Windows 7". Compatibility is easier to use than in previous Windows versions. Rather than open the properties and play with a compatibility tab, once a program fails to start or run due to requiring a previous Windows version, Windows 7 can automatically set the compatibility needed upon the next start of the failing program. If this automatic mechanism can be used on a majority of compatibility issues it could reduce a fair amount of grief that Vista caused.

UI improvements: Windows 7 has some UI adjustments that could improve workflow rather than just looking better (all UI adjustments should improve the user's experience), but it is possible to see where Microsoft got its inspiration. Pinning an application to the taskbar, and quick lists, look and behave much like the Dock in OS X; and Libraries in Windows Explorer are akin to Places in Finder. That aside, one problem that Windows 7 has is that it is still so far away from release -- meaning that by the time Windows 7 is out, Linux contributors and/or Apple would have likely cloned any of these UI improvements.

Snap to maximise/resize: dragging windows to the left and right of the desktop will make that window half the horizontal size of the desktop. The theory behind this is that users often only make use of two applications simultaneously, and rather than continuously change between them, dragging one app to the left and one to the right, will improve this process.

If an application is dragged to the top of the desktop, it will maximise the application; when the maximise app window is dragged down again, it receives its pre-maximised dimensions again.

Touch: many of the demos at PDC improved the use of large desktop touchscreens, and it is clear that Touch will play a large part in Windows' future. When the user moves from using a keyboard and mouse to using the touch interface, the UI creates more whitespace allowing for easier touch usage. Small adjustments like this make for good experiences.

The other touch takeaway was that applications will not need refactoring to be used by touch, because the touch interface uses the mouse controls, applications need not even be aware that touch is an interface option.

About the house: perhaps this is the release which will reduce the number of calls from your family asking for IT support. One speaker made a claim that it takes approximately 30-40 steps to share a Windows printer (depending on path used to complete task), by contrast it takes only a handful of steps to accomplish the same result in Windows 7. Although 40 steps may appear to be a little high, it is clear that around the home, Windows 7 is looking to make things simpler. Your phone will be the true judge of this though.

Windows Media Player 12: "[users] could play anything in Vista, as long as it was Windows Media" was the quote to introduce the expanded range of codecs that Media Player will support. H.264, xDiv and DivX are all on the list. In an ironic twist, Media Player will not be able to play Fairplay DRMed media as Apple does not licence Fairplay, perhaps DRM isn't so good after all Microsoft?

Media Player 12 has also gained the functionality to send songs in its library to a networked audio device. As an occupant in a house with such a device, using the current web interface is a pain.

Telemetry is important: much of the reasoning for certain improvements was data gained from Microsoft's opt-in telemetry. One example is the decision to code-version Windows 7 as Windows 6.2. The reason being is that most software failure in Vista came from installers that were hardcoded to check the version string, which does not follow Microsoft's best practices. Hence, Windows 7 has the same version string as Windows Vista. Such is the importance that Microsoft puts on this data that Windows 7 beta users will have no choice but to opt-in.

Performance: Windows 7 is touting many performance improvements over Vista, and while I applaud improvements to performance, it's not as though being faster than Vista was a tough task. The areas that Windows 7 makes improvements are: increasing gaming performance, 23 per cent fewer bluescreens, better battery life, and better boot times thanks to parallelising the boot process.

Improved tools for administrators:

  • Image deployment: administrators now have the option to deploy Windows image yet retain the existing Document folder to reduce system restoration time.
  • BitLocker can now be used on USB keys to protect corporate data if the USB key is lost.
  • Problem Step recorder: a utility that allows users to capture a task that is giving them pain, and gives the administrator an MHTML document.
UAC verbosity: there are now four levels of verboseness to the dreaded UAC. From everything as per Vista to not at all.

Windows Azure: did you realise that the name makes this release entitled "Windows Blue"? Conjure your own bad jokes between "Windows Blue" and Virgin Blue.

Chris Duckett travelled to PDC as a guest of Microsoft