Prior to the October Community Technology Preview (CTP)
Build 5231, the Sidebar and its aptly named Gadgets were a prominent part of
Windows Vista. When these tools disappeared from Build 5231, I wasn’t worried,
thinking that Microsoft was holding them back while they made some awesome
improvements. When the November CTP failed to materialize, my disappointment with
the overall product was so great that I didn’t even think about the Sidebar. In
the latter part of December, when Build 5270 appeared, I was very surprised to find
that the Sidebar was still MIA. Microsoft had really been hyping it as such a
cool, yet soon-to-be-very-useful tool that I couldn’t believe that they would
pull it from the new operating system like some of the other features that they
had already yanked, such as WinFS, the next generation storage subsystem.

I was very pleased to see that the Sidebar did indeed
survive the axe and was back in place in the “feature complete” February
CTP/Build 5308. While you might be tempted to simply write off the Sidebar and
Gadgets as Windows Vista toys, that would be a mistake. Microsoft has put a lot
of effort into crafting the Sidebar and Gadgets into very useful tools in their
new operating system. Let’s take a closer look.

What is the Sidebar?

The Sidebar is essentially a toolbar that can appear on
either the left or right side of the desktop and provides you with a place to
store and organize information that you regularly need, or want, to access quickly.
The information is presented via little tools called Gadgets, which are
actually customizable mini programs that can display continuously updated
information, as well as provide shortcuts to common tasks. In the first
category, Gadgets can bring you regularly updated weather forecasts, news
headlines, or stock tickers. In the second category, you could have links to
your favorite Web sites or a Web search tool.

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If you remember playing with Active Desktop, which debuted
with Internet Explorer 4.0 and allowed you to place active elements from the
Web on your desktop, then you have good idea of where the Sidebar is leading
us. I almost didn’t want to mention the Sidebar and Active Desktop in the same
sentence, but the evolutionary path is apparent. While Active Desktop was
essentially a failure, the Sidebar is implemented much better and definitely
has the markings of a real winner.

As I mentioned, the Sidebar can appear on either the left or
right side of the desktop and by default is relegated to the background when
you maximize a window. However, it can be configured to stay on top of the
desktop. When the Sidebar is configured in that way, maximized windows squeeze
into the available space left on the screen, as shown in Figure A. This feature will definitely be a boon to those laptop
users who opted for a widescreen display!

Figure A

The Sidebar is a versatile feature that will bring a host of useful Gadgets
to the Windows Vista desktop.

In addition, the Sidebar places an icon in the notification
area that you can click to pop the Sidebar up and down very much like the Start
menu. And, if you happen to have a multiple monitor setup, you can choose on which
monitor you want the Sidebar to appear.

The Gadgets

At this stage in the game, Microsoft has endowed Windows
Vista with a small handful of Gadgets–five to be exact. To begin with, there is
a clock, a mini slide-show viewer, and the RSS Feed Viewer. Then, you have the
Launcher, which provides space for your most often used shortcuts, and the Recycle
Bin, which provides you with four different looking containers. If you fill up
the Sidebar’s main space with Gadgets, you’ll find arrow buttons that allow you
to slide the extra Gadgets in and out of view, much like the Start menu’s All
Programs menu slides in and out of view.

In addition to the Gadgets that come with Windows Vista, you
can download more from the Microsoft Gadgets Web site. You’ll be able to
download Gadgets created by Microsoft, third-party developers, and a host of
Gadget programming hobbyists. You’ll even find instructions and examples that
will help you to build your own Gadgets using HTML, XML, scripts, style sheets,
and image files. I’m not going to say that doing so will be a simple task, but
if you’ve created a Web site and understand scripting, you stand a good chance
at successfully building the example Gadget presented on the site.

In the area of enterprise-oriented Gadgets, Microsoft is
promoting the idea that IT staff can build custom Gadgets that display industry
news, CRM data, sales figures, document workflows, or IT infrastructure status.
They can also build gadgets that present information extracted from
line-of-business applications and databases.


As you can see, the Sidebar and Gadgets are really
innovative! And, there’s room for this feature to grow. I expect that we’ll be
seeing lots of cool Gadgets in the future.

In the meantime, keep in mind that Windows Vista’s official
release date is slated for the a little later this year. Therefore, some of the
information about the Sidebar and Gadgets may change between now and the
official release date. As always, if you have comments or information to share
about the Sidebar and Gadgets, please take a moment to drop
by the Discussion area
and let us hear.