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Windows NT 5.0 Feature Focus: Personalized Menus

Windows NT 5.0 is being developed with the following four design goals:

  • Improve the Windows user interface to provide the easiest Windows operating system yet for the business desktop (emphasis here is mine).
  • Continue to advance the core Windows NT benefits of reliability, security, networking, and performance.
  • Provide the best of Windows 98 hardware and software support for business.
  • Lower the overall cost of ownership by making it easier to deploy, administer, and support the desktop.
Looking over these goals, it should be easy to understand why Microsoft didn't feel the need to drastically change the Windows user interface. Unlike the UI in Windows 3.1, the Windows 95 "Cairo" user interface--which is more simply known as Explorer--is an object-based shell that provides a Mac-like desktop environment, complete with extensible hooks for Microsoft and third parties to leverage. In Windows 98, Microsoft tweaked Explorer to add a number of new features, including the Active Desktop HTML layer on the desktop, an integrated My Documents folder, and in-place editing of items in the Start menu. In Windows NT 5.0, these features and many others take Explorer to the next level.

Windows NT 5.0 Shell Enhancements
The Windows NT 5.0 Explorer is designed for simplicity, so beginners can get to work quickly, and customization, so power users can configure their environment as they see fit. Key features of this new user interface include:
  • Personalized Menus -- The Start menu displays only the most-frequently accessed programs by default.
  • New Open/Save Dialog Boxes -- Features a "Places Bar" so that most-frequently accessed folders are easy to access.
  • Auto-Complete Dialog Boxes -- Auto-Complete feature from IE has made it into every text box in the system.
  • Pervasive "Most Frequently Used" Lists -- Almost every dialog where users look for information features a most recently used (MRU) list.
  • Enhanced My Documents Folder -- Now completely integrated with the system (and with Active Directory, if present), My Documents makes it easy to find data files.
  • New My Pictures Folder -- A new sub-directory in My Documents for image files, with default auto-preview features.
  • Simple System Messages -- Error and "action" messages are more understandable and feature fewer steps to complete functions.
  • New Network Places Folder -- The replacement for Network Neighborhood makes it easier to access network resources.
  • Customizable Toolbars -- Shell toolbars (in My Computer and Windows Explorer) are now completely customizable.
  • New HTML-based File or Folders Search -- The replacement for the "Find" Start menu item in earlier versions of Windows is easier and more powerful.
  • Enhanced HTML-based Add/Remove Programs Dialog -- Offers far more information than the previous version and is completely extensible.
  • Enhanced "Open With" Functionality -- All file types now support "Open With" natively, with the ability to automatically add new apps to the list of apps that can open particular file types.
  • And, of course, more!
I touched on some of these features in my review of Windows NT 5.0 Workstation Beta 2, but all of these features, and others not mentioned here, will also be covered in future technology showcases. For now, let's take a look at Personalized Menus.

Hello, chevron: A look at Personalized Menus
This feature is, perhaps, one of the more controversial in the new user interface and I suspect many people will hate it. I'm going to leave it turned on for a while and see if I can grow to love it (or at least learn to deal with it), but the concept is a good one: After a period of type use, most people find themselves confronted with a horribly overgrown Start menu. This is generally caused by the freewheeling nature of install programs that spew icons and folders all over the Start menu, generally without first consulting the user. Power users will go in and delete or modify their Start menu groups, but this skill is beyond many users, so Microsoft figured they'd build something into the system that would do that for them.

It's called Personalized Menus.

Stolen--or rather, leveraged--from the Office team, which is hard at work making its own wholesale user interface tweaks in Office 2000 (please, don't get me started), Personalized Menus examine the way you use your system, which programs you use most often, which icons you click the most often in the Start menu. It takes almost a week to kick in, but once it does, you will be confronted by a somewhat truncated Start menu (Picture) that features chevrons (those double down-arrow thingys) to indicate that there are other options. When you hover over the chevrons, the menu expands to show all of the items you have available (Picture).

By the way, it's worth noting that the Personalized Menus feature just revealed itself the morning of the day I wrote this review. I expect many other items in the Start menu to be hidden by those chevrons in the next few weeks, until only the programs I access every day are left. Also worth mentioning: If you drag shortcuts on to the top of the Start menu as I do, that list of icons will not be affected by Personalized Menus.

I think this feature is going to be successful (though, possibly, initially confusing) to new users. If you're a power user and shudder at the thought of these little beasties taking over your Start menu, fear not: You can turn it off. Simply right-click the taskbar (but not the Start button, odd) and choose Properties. On the Start Menu Options tab, you will see a checkbox that enables or disables this feature (Picture). It is turned on by default, at least in Beta 2.

Is Personalized Menus a hit or miss? At this stage, it's hard to tell. I've pretty much decided to keep them on and see how they adapt to my use over time. Like many of the UI technologies in NT 5.0, Personalized Menus are clearly the first step in a future, adaptive, version of Windows. My gut feeling is that most people will hate it right away (the same way we hated Windows forcing "Program Files" and "My Documents" on us), but that, over time, we will just accept this feature and grow to deal with it.

Heck, we might even grow to love it. Only time will tell.

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