A new vista


Having learned from its mistakes with Windows Vista, Microsoft has unveiled test versions of its next operating system, writes John Collinsin LA

MICROSOFT THIS week announced major overhauls of its Windows and Office cash cows, as well as an increased focus on how its software interacts with the web, at a conference for 6,500 developers in Los Angeles.

The successor to Windows Vista is still in development, but stable test versions of it are being made available to Microsoft partners and the press, with the final version promised sometime around the third anniversary of Vista.

That means Microsoft has another year of feedback from test users and the rest of the industry before Windows 7 is released to manufacturing. Systems for consumers may be in the shops for Christmas 2009, but Microsoft is being deliberately vague about release dates, with Steven Sinofsky, the senior vice-president in charge of Windows, saying the company is focused on its plan to ensure the "ecosystem" is ready for the launch.

Sinofsky, who was brought in to get Windows back on track after the problems that beset the launch of Vista, is being extremely tight with information about the new release, but 1,000 developers have been working furiously in the background to get it to its current stage. Sinofsky admitted that Microsoft partners, particularly those who make software and hardware that work with Windows, "weren't ready for Vista's release like we would like them to have been". This time around, Microsoft is spending more time talking to and planning with makers of PCs, printers, mobiles and other devices that run and interact with Windows, to ensure it is easy for users to get them working with the new operating system.

When a camera or mobile is connected to the computer, Windows 7 will pull up a Device Stage screen created by the device manufacturer which provides clickable links for relevant tasks such as copying pictures or reading the product's manual online.

"With our new process of building products, we are much more focused on the plan rather than talking publicly about things," said Mike Nash, corporate vice-president for Windows product management.

Nash admitted that many of the problems with Vista were because of changes to the way it handled drivers and applications, and the introduction of new features late in the development cycle which wrongfooted its partners.

During his keynote speech on Tuesday, Sinofsky drew cheers from the assembled developers, and a fair number of the press, when he revealed changes to User Account Control (UAC), a feature in Vista that regularly asks users if they want to carry out a task. Users will now have full control over what level of UAC applies, rather than the constant nagging that was a feature of Vista.

Sinofsky admitted that UAC "nearly surpassed Clippy [an animated assistant in Microsoft Office] as the most annoying feature" Microsoft had put in a product and, to laughs from the crowd, said he had been centrally involved in both.

The "wow" factor of Windows 7 was provided by touchscreen capabilities that allow users to interact with their PC using their fingers - provided their screen supports this capability. It will be possible to scroll through documents with your finger even if the applications are not "touch aware".

Breaking the silence on Windows 7 does not mean Microsoft is giving up on Vista. Executives cited security, productivity improvements, mobile support, a quick return on investment and reduced support costs as reasons why businesses should upgrade to Vista now.

Some business customers are reportedly planning to skip Vista and wait for Windows 7. Earlier this month, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer was reported as saying people could wait for Windows 7 if they wanted, but company executives have been downplaying those comments since.

Analysts at IT research firm Gartner have warned businesses of the risk of skipping Vista, the quality of which has improved significantly since the release of Service Pack One, a set of patches for the system.

Underlining the gap between the reality and perception of Vista, Microsoft carried out blind testing of Service Pack One, calling it the soon-to-be-released Windows Mojave. Before the test, the group rated Vista 4.4 out of 10, but the average post-test score was 8.5.

In recent years Microsoft has been talking about a "software + services" strategy in response to the increasing number of tasks that PC users carry out on the web.

It is even investing $500 million (€378 million) in building a Dublin data centre to support the strategy in Europe.

Rich-web applications were a major focus of this week's event, with demonstrations of Microsoft's suite of services for consumers - Windows Live Essentials (WLE).

Nash said WLE would ensure Windows 7 provided a "complete communication and sharing experience". Perhaps in deference to antitrust investigators, Microsoft said WLE was a suite of "Live products that work well with Windows 7 but ship separately".

BBC demonstrated a Live-enabled version of its iPlayer, which allows UK residents to watch and listen to television and radio online. An offline application built using Silverlight adds social networking functionality, such as recommending content to friends on your MSN Messenger contact list.

At risk of getting lost amid all the noise was the announcement that Microsoft Office 14 - the next version of the productivity suite - will include lightweight online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, comparable to Google Docs.

Sinofsky may not have an easy relationship with the press but after his performance at this week's conference, it is clear that the development of Windows will respond better to consumer feedback and industry trends.

As Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie noted, some of the products demonstrated in Los Angeles are still in an embryonic stage. But the company seems to have the leadership that will see it not only continue on its profitable path, but possess the potential to win back kudos from the web vanguard led by Google.