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
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
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
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