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Activity Centers: A Windows Me Technology Showcase

"[Activity Centers] won't be a focus for Millennium, but are part of Microsoft's longer-range consumer OS plans," a Microsoft corporate spokeswoman said in late September. "It's too early to say how they'll be implemented, but I can say that you won't see them in Millennium, nor will you see a brand-new [user interface]."

It's an interesting comment. Maybe someone should tell the Consumer Windows team, because at least a few Activity Centers will make it into Millennium. Let's take a look at Activity Centers and the technology that's used to create them.

The melding of HTML and Win32
Microsoft decided at least three years ago that it would eventually meld the traditional Windows user interface (which we'll call Win32 for simplicity) with the user interface seen on the Web, a combination of HTML, Dynamic HTML, and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Dubbed Forms+ internally, this new user interface will be integrated slowly into Windows. In fact, the first step began back in 1996 with the advent of HTML Help and the Desktop Update feature from IE 4.0 and Windows 98. Over subsequent release of Windows, new HTML features have been--and will be--added, blurring the distinction between local applications and distributed, Web-based applications. It's a brave new world.

Enter Activity Centers
Activity Centers--originally expected in Millennium but now due in it's NT-based follow-up, dubbed Whistler, are the next logical step. Activity Centers are simply HTML-based applications, running locally on a Windows computer. To enable this technology, a new version of Internet Explorer (version 5.5+) is required. This new version of IE includes more hooks into the OS so that HTML user interfaces can be combined with the programming logic that is typically seen in true Windows applications. This enables Activity Centers to interact with Win32 API calls (the low-level programming libraries used by C/C++ programmers) like normal applications. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

Activity Centers in Millennium
Millennium will include at two Activity Center-style applications: Help and Support (Previously "Help Center") and System Recovery. (A third Activity Center, System Update, was switched back to a standard Win32 application between Beta 2 and Beta 3). These Wizard-like applications are clearly Web pages, but because they are based on the new IE 5.5 subsystem, they are able to interact with the system in ways that were previously not possible. Some of the original Activity Centers, such as Media Center and Photo Center, will not be included in Millennium simply because of time: Microsoft wants to get Millennium into the hands of users quickly, and full-fledged Activity Centers such as these may be a bit too confusing to users when the rest of the user interface still resembles Windows 98.

The future: Whistler and the FORMS+ user interface
In Whistler, the Consumer Windows follow-up to Millennium now due in late 2001 (if then), Microsoft will attempt to switch over to a full Forms+ user interface. This means that most, if not all, of the system utilities and applications included in Whistler will be based on the Activity Center user interface (Forms+) and not pure Win32. This user interface will be simpler and scaled down significantly from the complicated UI we're use to today in Windows 98, Millennium/Windows Me, and Windows 2000. And though one could argue that this simplication is simply a by-product of using early generation HTML, its equally true that consumers need something obvious and simple, not convoluted. Today's modern computer operating systems have advanced to the point where new users require too much training to get started. Whistler should eliminate this issue while ushering in a new age of Windows appliances, non-PC devices that still use PC-like hardware under a consumer device exterior. Such devices might run off of a TV set in the den or in a kitchen, so simplicity--and consistency--is the goal. And future versions of Windows 2000 will likely adopt this user interface as well, or at least a "professional" version of it, so that users can make the transition easily. Still, this part of the plan is far enough in the future that it could change dramatically. Anyone remember Cairo?

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