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Shipping Seven: An Ongoing Dialog About the Next Windows, Part 2: April 2008

Since writingPart One of this series back in January 2008, a number of things have happened with regards to Windows 7, the next Windows version. First, there's been an amazing amount of silliness and speculation about the Windows 7 release date, in part due to off the cuff remarks from outgoing Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, but mostly because of bored (and boring) tech pundits who are eager to write about something controversial. Second, I've finally gotten my hands on Windows 7 build 6519, the first external build of Windows 7 to make the rounds outside the hallowed halls of Microsoft. In this part of my Shipping Seven series, I'd like to discuss both developments.

Silly speculation

If you're curious how many tech bloggers, pundits, and other pseudo-journalists come up with 500 words of prose on a slow news day, consider the following: On Friday, April 4, 2008, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates--who, it should be noted, is actually leaving his full time job at the company this summer--uttered the following sentence in response to a question about Windows Vista:

"Sometime in the next year or so we will have a new version."

Exciting, eh? Unfortunately, Gates' quote was completely misquoted and misunderstood by virtually everyone in the tech press. CNET's Ina Fried published a story that day titled, "Gates: Windows 7 may come 'in the next year'," despite the fact that Gates may not actually have been talking about Windows 7, but rather about Windows Vista: Maybe that "new version" he was referring to was Fiji, the codename for a long-overdue Windows Media Center update that may now be part of a broader Vista refresh. No matter: Despite the fact that Gates never said "Windows 7," the tech press was off to the races, trying to see who could outdo each other on the sensationalism-o-meter.

There were voices of reason, of course. Me, for starters: I dissected the Gates quote above (and some other Windows 7 news "stories" from that day) in the SuperSite Blog. Mary Jo Foley noted in a blog post of her own that Microsoft officials were still planning to ship Windows 7 "roughly three years after Windows Vista?s consumer launch (which was January 2007), meaning in early 2010." And then Ars Technica, apparently after reading my blog, published basically the same story two days later: That Gates never actually said that Windows 7 would ship in 2009. Much ado about nothing. (ZD blogger and Windows expert Ed Bott remained above the fray: He decided to start a Windows 7 release date prediction pool, which is actually a decent idea.)

So when does Microsoft really plan to ship Windows 7? In 2010, the exact same expected release date that I first published in my Windows 7 FAQ back in February 2007, over a year ago. And why do I know this is still the case? Because Microsoft Director Chris Flores publicly stated just that, just yesterday. (Curiously, his direct quote has since been removed from the linked post, which I find interesting. No matter, here's a cached version of the page with the full quote, courtesy of Mary Jo Foley. Thanks again for that.)

Hands on with build 6519

The other big development involves my hands-on experience with Windows 7 build 6519, a now-dated early beta version of the next Windows that was created way back in December. As is often the case with early betas, Windows 7 build 6519 has more in common with its predecessor (Windows Vista in this case) than it does with the eventual shipping product it represents. But that's just dandy. Because hidden among the hundreds of small changes are some real gems, hints about the direction which Microsoft will take with this version of Windows.

So with the understanding that any discussion about Windows 7 build 6519 is, by definition, a slice in time view of a product that will change dramatically in the months and years ahead, here are some mile-high views of this thing as it now stands.

I'm running it

First of all, I feel that it's important to actually live and breathe Windows 7 to gain a true appreciation for the product, so I'm using it on my main desktop machine, which is now multi-booting between an alarming number of operating system versions. (Incidentally, I don't recommend this at all. I'm doing it for testing purposes only and it's unclear how long I'll be able to deal with this.) When I first received the Windows 7 build 6519 install DVD, I just did a test install in a virtual machine. This is nice for screenshots and general testing, but it doesn't give you an understanding of the performance and maturity differences compared to its predecessor. Obviously, installing it on live hardware and actually using the thing is crucial. So I am. God help us all.

And sure enough, Windows 7 in day-to-day use is exactly what distantly-viewed screenshots and virtual machine installs had suggested: It's an update to Windows Vista with an extremely similar user experience and performance. It reminds me, very much, of the very first "community test" preview build that Microsoft shipped for Memphis back in, oh, late 1996: It was stable, fast, and had just enough going on to be interesting. Windows 7 build 6519 is just like that: If you're not paying attention, you're clearly running Windows Vista. Look a bit deeper and, oh my, what's that? And that? There are hundreds of minor changes.

Hardware and software compatibility

Windows 7 build 6519 had absolutely no trouble with the various hardware devices in and connected to my PC, and as with Vista, it coughed up a perfectly clean Device Manager. (Contrast this with Windows Server 2008, oddly.)

Software was a slightly different story. Most of the applications I use regularly had no issues under Windows 7 build 6519. But Visual Studio 2008 (and Web Developer Express 2008) refused to install when the first phase of Setup, for .NET Framework 3.5, failed. Beyond that, everything worked fine. Which makes sense: This build is basically Windows Vista.

Desktop and shell

The Windows desktop has evolved very slightly in build 6519. The Windows Sidebar is more integrated into the desktop, with Hide Gadgets and Add Gadgets options added directly to the desktop context menu. Furthermore, the Sidebar isn't visible anymore and there seems to be some weirdness about gadget ordering and arrangement. Clearly something is happening here that is more sophisticated than just hiding the Sidebar and assuming that people know how it works.

Years of futzing with the tray notification area and notification icons continues in build 6519: Infamously, the Show hidden icons slider has been replaced with a new pop-up window that includes a more obvious "Customize" link, though customization still occurs through the same old properties sheet we've been using for years. That said, new tray icons seem to be hidden by default, which is certainly not the case with Vista.

The Personalize context menu link from Windows Vista has been split out into two options, Display and Personalize. The new Personalize is like Vista's Personalize minus the Display Settings option, which is, of course, now found via the new Display menu item. It's not clear what separating these out buys you, but one oddity is that when you choose Display, the default view is, curiously, a new way to change the onscreen scaling (basically the DPI settings). To change the screen resolution, you have to click a link on the left. Interesting choice that.

In Explorer windows, there is a new view style, Smart Details, which appears to be similar to Tiles but with smaller icons. (This view style is not available on the desktop, which is still limited to Large, Medium, and Classic icons.) There's a new and obvious way to resize the Address Bar and Search box in each Explorer window, which is ugly and I'm sure will change. Otherwise, Explorer is very much like that in Vista: The Organize toolbar menu is the same, as are the various per-window toolbar buttons.

The Start Menu works identically to that in Windows Vista, except that Start Menu Search results now extend all the way across the menu, instead of being confined to the left side as they are in Windows Vista.

Control Panel is clearly on the way to some big changes. The More Options pane from Windows Vista has been condensed down to a weird and small colored strip, though the icon layout in the default view is almost identical to that in Vista. Instead of an Additional Options icon, however, we're provided with All Control Panel Items. (Which, sure enough, displays the Control Panel in what used to be called Classic View.)

Digital media applications

Gratifyingly, some of the biggest changes in Windows 7 build 6519 are in the digital media applications. Windows Media Center has received a long-overdue makeover, though it's still not complete in this build. You may recall that the version of Windows Media Center that ships in Windows Vista is a weird halfway house between the old XP version of Windows Media Center and the "Fiji" version to come. In build 6519, we can see further Fiji-fication of the Media Center UI, which means adding more translucency while steadily scaling back the old list-like menus. So while some new UI is present in the media details screens, the Settings stuff still looks like the first version of Media Center. They're getting there.

Windows Media Player has been updated in significant ways as well. I have to say, this was somewhat surprising, and it wasn't clear to me that Microsoft would invest any effort in Windows Media Player going forward given its Zune initiative and the rapidly dying "PlaysForSure" ecosystem. I guess I was wrong: While the version in 6519 is still labeled as Windows Media Player 11, it's quite clearly the initial stages of version 12.

From a UI perspective, the new Windows Media Player has been streamlined and improved. The old media type selector widget and its resulting sub-menus have been moved up into the WMP toolbar, which I think is both more discoverable and attractive. The number of toolbar buttons has been cut back, and they're now snug up on the right side of the toolbar, which isn't so successful a change. Now, we have Media Guide, Play, Burn, and Sync options by default. (So we've lost Now Playing, Library, and Rip in the default view; also, the Media Guide button doesn't also provide access to online services as it did in Vista.) It looks like the Library view is just the default, and there's no more Now Playing view, making WMP more like iTunes. However, there's a renewed emphasis on the List pane, which was detuned in WMP 11, an interesting step back.

Also new in the WMP UI are some odd looking menu gadgets in the bottom right of the application window. The Favorites menu gadget, which looks like a star, provides access to a menu with Favorites, All Library Shuffled, and Recommended Favorites choices. What's happening here is that WMP supports an Internet Explorer-like Favorites facility, where you can designate Artists, Albums, Songs, and other entities as Favorites and then access your favorite music from this handy menu. As you add Favorites, they appear on the gadget menu.

The second gadget menu is for switching the player mode, and its similar to the View full screen and Switch to mini-player buttons in WMP11 in that it combines these options with two others: Library (the new name for the "normal" view style) and Mini (which puts WMP in the taskbar).

Windows Photo Gallery doesn't appear to have changed since Windows Vista, but then this application has been superseded by Windows Live Photo Gallery anyway. Likewise, Windows Movie Maker and Windows DVD Maker appear unchanged too. Both are in need of an update, however, especially the limited and weird DVD Maker.

Other applications

Most of the applications that ship in Windows 7 build 6519 will be familiar to Windows Vista users and are unchanged. Windows Mail, Default Programs, Internet Explorer 7, Windows Calendar, Windows Contacts, Windows Defender, Windows Fax and Scan, and Windows Meeting Space all appear identical.

Some applications, however, have changed. And there are some new additions as well.

Paint, which I believe has been included in every version of Windows and has maybe changed less than any other part of the operating system, actually gets a makeover in build 6519, with rulers and an optional drawing grid.

And speaking of venerable Windows applications, Calculator has been updated. Whereas the Vista version sported Standard and Scientific modes, Windows 7 adds Programmer and Statistics modes as well.

Windows Security Center is still present, but it doesn't throw up warnings as it does in Vista when an antivirus solution isn't installed.

Welcome Center looks like the Vista version, but when you click the Show more details link, the System properties pane slides in elegantly rather than loading like it does in Vista.

As for new applications, there's a TS Workspace client for connecting to Terminal Services over HTTPS. A new standalone XPS Viewer application replaces the IE-based support for XPS in Vista. A Private Character Editor (oddly referenced as eudcedit in the Start Menu) lets you create special characters that you can then paste into documents. (This tool is actually in Vista too, by the way, it's just not in the Start Menu.)

Parting shots

There's probably more, but I've only been running Windows 7 day-to-day for a short while and I'll need more time to see if anything unusual pops up. So far so good, aside from a few application crashes (primarily Windows Media Player). I hope to have more to say about this and future builds further down the road.

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