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Windows Vista Feature Focus: Windows Sidebar

The Windows Sidebar, a standard feature of all mainstream Windows Vista versions, is a unique environment attached to the side of the Windows Vista desktop that hosts Web-like gadgets, or mini-applications. The Sidebar is designed to take advantage of unused onscreen real estate on today's widescreen displays, and most of the gadgets it provides are utility-like in nature and provide at-a-glance access to such things as the time, the date, and the weather. However, the Sidebar as we know today it is a far cry from Microsoft's original plans. And it is steeped in mystery and myth, owing its origins to long-forgotten experiments with PC user interface design.

Sidebar origins

Microsoft has shipped a number of Sidebar-like features in the past. The task panes in various Microsoft Office versions and in Windows XP's Explorer windows, for example, represented similar attempts to more fully utilize unused onscreen real estate. Looking back further, you can see a Windows Sidebar predecessor in the My Stuff bar in MSN Explorer 6 (Figure) and, more obviously, the more evolved Dashboard in MSN 8 (Figure), which could be attached directly to a side of the screen. Note that in both cases, the My Stuff bar/Dashboard was always mounted on the left or right side of the application or screen, and each provides Sidebar-like access to various utilities and notification events (like email and instant messages).

For Windows Vista, Microsoft originally pursued a next-generation version of the MSN Dashboard called the Windows Sidebar. This original Sidebar version, which we might think of as Longhorn Sidebar, was eventually scrapped when the company reorganized the Longhorn project and restarted development on Vista in 2004. However, you can see how the Longhorn Sidebar evolved between 2002 and 2003 in even the earliest builds of the product (Figure). Like the MSN Dashboard, the Longhorn Sidebar would be attached to the side of the screen and provide access to utilities and notifications like email and instant messaging. Because it was integrated into Windows, it could also augment or even replace the Windows taskbar, and in such cases, the Start Menu would actually cascade off the Sidebar. Back then, gadgets were called Tiles and they were based on XML.

As Longhorn progressed, so too did the Sidebar. Microsoft envisioned the Longhorn Sidebar as the centralized location through which all system- and application-based notifications would be delivered. The idea was a good one: In the Windows versions of the day (and today, it turns out), Windows itself and every application you installed had different ways of notifying the user about important events. For example, MSN Messenger would pop-up its proprietary "toast" notifications, while third-party applications like Norton Anti-Virus created their own pop-up windows. Under Microsoft's original plan for Vista, the Sidebar would host all notifications, giving them a consistent look, yes, but also a single place for users to go for notifications. Brilliant.

Back then, the Longhorn Sidebar included such Tiles as a clock, device synchronization, frequent applications, media player, search, and the like. It could replace the taskbar and host icons for running applications. Tiles featured pop-out windows that could expand on the information they were displaying. It was all very logical. Over time, Tiles were renamed to Parts, but the vision was largely consistent.

Enter the new Sidebar

By 2004, it was all over: Microsoft realized it had run into a development brick wall, halted Vista development, and restarted from scratch. One of the casualties from this event was the Sidebar, which was cancelled because Microsoft felt it was too complex to realize in this Windows version. Users who had experienced the original Sidebar complained, but it appeared that Microsoft had pretty much given up on the idea.

In early 2005, however, the coincidental formation of a new Platforms Incubation Team (PIT) in the Windows Division breathed new life into the Sidebar. The PIT was created as a way for the Windows Division to rapidly develop and bring to market new software ideas along the same vein as the MSN team (now Windows Live). They are responsible for the Windows Calendar and the Texas Hold 'Em game that's now part of Windows Ultimate Extras, and they fixed various Windows utilities, like Notepad, Calculator, and Paint, to be Vista compatible. They are also responsible for the new Windows Sidebar that appears in the shipping version of the OS.

This new Windows Sidebar, or what we should just refer to as Sidebar, is completely different from the old Longhorn Sidebar. Whereas the Longhorn Sidebar was an integrated part of the Vista shell, the new Sidebar is a simpler realization of some of the core Longhorn Sidebar goals. It was created from scratch, and shares no software code with its predecessor. It hosts gadgets that are based on JavaScript and XML code, not XML-based Tiles or Parts. It is not integrated into an internal system notifications infrastructure at all, but is rather an optional component of Windows that runs on its own. "It's basically a scripting host environment, but done in a graphical way," Microsoft program manager Shawn Morrissey told me way back in January 2006.

The PIT started working on Sidebar in April 2005 and eventually there were four developers on board, so it was a small, fast moving project. It was co-developed with similar gadget hosting environments such as (Microsoft's Web portal) and the Windows Sideshow, though ultimately, gadgets for each aren't necessarily compatible with each environment, as was the original goal. Like most PIT projects, Sidebar is not tied to Windows, so we won't have to wait for the next Windows version to get updates.

Examining Windows Sidebar

Unless your screen is constrained to an abnormally small resolution, you will see Windows Sidebar mounted on the right side of the display when you boot into Windows Vista for the first time. The environment consists of the Sidebar itself, a kind of shadowy gray area in its default display mode, various gadgets, which can be displayed in the Sidebar or floating on the Windows desktop, and a Sidebar icon in the system notification tray.

The default Sidebar (left) and a customized version (right)

By default, Windows Sidebar ships with 10 gadgets. These include:

Calendar. A simple month, year, date, and day of week display in non-configurable orange. Nice touch: Click it and you'll see the full month view.

Clock. A decent clock with one major advantage over virtually every downloadable clock gadget I've tried: You can set it to the time in any time zone, not just the system time. Clock is configurable with 8 clock faces, some of which are quite attractive.

CPU Meter. This gadget features two simple analog-style dials measuring the current CPU utilization and memory usage, respectively. Note that CPU Meter is overly simple and can't differentiate between multiple CPUs or CPU cores.

Currency. A simple currency converter.

Feed Headlines. This gadget is an RSS feed aggregator that links into the RSS feeds you've subscribed to through Internet Explorer 7. It rotates through the currently-unread feeds. If you click a headline, a pop-out window displays the entire feed. Click the feed headline in the pop-out window, and the entire post or article will be displayed in your default Web browser.

Notes. A simple note-taking utility displayed as a stack of yellow Post-It notes. You can choose from six colors and various font styles.

Picture Puzzle. A simple tile-based sliding puzzle game with 11 different images and timer.

Slide Show. The requisite photo slideshow gadget, Slide Show can be configured to look for images in particular folders, with different transition types. A View button on the gadget will open the currently displayed picture in Windows Photo Gallery.

Stocks. A stock tracking gadget.

Weather. A very handy and attractive weather gadget that can be configured for any location worldwide.

Third party gadget development has been slow and of surprisingly low quality, but you can also download a number of additional Sidebar-compatible gadgets from the Microsoft Web site. Be careful, however, to download only those gadgets that are Sidebar compatible, as the site includes gadgets for and Windows SideShow as well.

Secret: You can display multiple versions of each gadget if you'd like. This is particularly handy with certain gadgets, like Clock and Weather, where you can display this information for different locales simultaneously. In my Sidebar, for example, I have two Clock gadgets, one for home and one for Paris, and I have two copies of Weather, one for home, and two for Paris, one each in Fahrenheit in Celsius, so I can learn to do quicker temperature conversions.

You can customize the Sidebar in various ways. By default, it is displayed on the right side of the screen, but you can move it to the left side if desired. You can also choose to display it "on top of other windows," which essentially changes the edge of the screen to the innermost edge of the Sidebar; when you maximize application windows, they will not cover the Sidebar in this mode. You can also drag gadgets to the desktop; in many cases, these gadgets then expand to reveal more information. For example, the Weather gadget displays the current temperature and weather by default, but if you drag it to the desktop, the gadget becomes larger and displays a three day forecast.

Tip: Those with multiple monitors can also choose which monitor they would like to use to display Sidebar.

Sidebar competitors

Apple includes a Sidebar-like environment called Dashboard in Mac OS X 10.4 (see my review). However, Apple announced Dashboard after Microsoft revealed the Longhorn Sidebar, and the current implementation of Windows Sidebar is superior to Dashboard in a number of ways, most notably that it's always available onscreen, whereas OS X's Dashboard feature is hidden in a bizarre separate desktop. Sidebar's gadgets and Dashboard's widgets are similar, technologically. Arguably, there is a much nicer selection of third party Dashboard widgets than there are of Sidebar gadgets.

In addition to Dashboard, various other companies have shipped Sidebar-like products. Google makes a free product called Google Desktop that includes its own Sidebar and Google Gadgets, while Yahoo! purchased the Konfabulator technology that, with Longhorn Sidebar, inspired Apple to create Dashboard: It's now renamed to Yahoo! Widgets and is freely available to Windows and Mac users. Both of these environments are worth testing if you're intrigued by Windows Sidebar.

Final thoughts

While Windows Sidebar is a far cry from Microsoft's original vision, it is still a very useful and interesting feature in Windows Vista. After originally dismissing Sidebar, I've come to appreciate it, and it's a standard part of all of my Vista installs now. My only real issue with Sidebar is the lack of quality downloadable gadgets: Microsoft should have released a slew of Windows Live, Windows, and Office gadgets by now, and it's unclear to me why they're not doing more to promote these mini-utilities. Come on, Microsoft: Don't let the Sidebar whither due to a lack of quality gadgets.

Fun fact: Microsoft created a Windows XP version of Windows Sidebar and originally intended to release it as a free download for users of that system. In my January 2006 meeting with the PIT, I was given a beta version of this software to test. But that was the last I heard about it, and it's pretty clear that Sidebar for XP will never see the light of day now.

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