SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - The future of Windows is .Net-- Microsoft Corp.'s initiative for simplifying interaction with computers and related devices, and keeping them connected via the Internet. With Windows 2000 and Windows Millennium out the door, Microsoft is well into development on the .Net successor to both, code-named Whistler.
Whistler won't ship for at least another year. But we snuck a peek over a developer's shoulder at Build 2250, a prebeta version.
What we saw, although subject to change in the final product, suggests a Windows with a richer, more configurable user interface, remote access capabilities, and the ability to listen to your voice commands and read your handwriting. The new operating system will also incorporate some of the .Net technologies that Microsoft demonstrated earlier this year. These features, which will allow you to access information on multiple devices wherever you go, aren't apparent yet--in part because many of them require server support that hasn't materialized at this early stage. On the other hand, you can already interact with Whistler from a Pocket PC--to check e-mail, for example, or to download a file.
Whistler is likely to appear in a professional edition for business desktops, as well as in various server editions. And since it is slated to grab the consumer OS baton from Windows Me, there may be a home edition as well.
The first changes we noticed in Whistler were in the user interface--the Start menu, Taskbar, and Explorer. These changes are predominantly cosmetic but could help novice users while reducing the number of clicks veteran users expend on common tasks.
Start It Up
Microsoft's .net press conference previewed a customizable, browserlike interface that unites e-mail, application launching, and various file browsing tasks. Whistler Build 2250 contains a hidden, still-buggy first stab at a concept called the Start Page--basically Active Desktop revisited. This could eventually become the primary way users interact with their computers and the Internet, but Microsoft will have to create a killer Start Page if it wants to render the Start menu, Taskbar, and Explorer obsolete.
More-substantive changes include another currently hidden feature--an alternate Start menu mode called Start Panel, which collects popular commands and links from disparate Start submenus into one multicolumn menu window. The Taskbar gets one or two tweaks as well. A 'Clean up notification area' setting hides seldom-used icons in the system tray, and you can configure specific icons to remain hidden always (or never). Once you have arranged your Taskbar and its individual toolbars the way you want them, you can lock the configuration into place, thereby preventing Windows from automatically resizing the toolbars as current versions do.
Want a different look on your desktop? Various preset Visual Styles--collections of colors, frame sizes, and backgrounds--promise a change of scenery in a few clicks. Windows 9x and 2000 let you vary window frame sizes, colors, and fonts, and then save the settings as a Scheme. Whistler splits these Schemes into color settings, and window and font settings (called Visual Styles). This lets you apply a desktop look and a color scheme independently--a small but useful improvement. Build 2250 includes only one Visual Style--called Professional (see illustration)--but it gives Whistler a fresh look without degrading screen legibility.
Like earlier Windows OSs, Whistler supports Themes--collections of Schemes, custom icons, and desktop backgrounds. Many Windows 95 and 98 users will remember these from the Microsoft Plus add-on packs. It appears that the final release of Whistler will include Themes, though they're disabled in Build 2250.
The tweaking carries over into Explorer. The most obvious alteration is enhanced Web content, which appears in folders in Web View mode. Just as the Start Panel does, the beefed-up Web content puts common tasks and links closer at hand, including commands for creating or copying folders, and renaming or deleting files. All of the links are context-sensitive; for example, the My Pictures folder has zoom, rotate, and slide-show buttons.
The value of some of the other changes is debatable. Build 2250's Explorer lets you group folder contents, but this makes sense only under certain circumstances. In the My Computer folder, for example, grouping separates a PC's drives into removable and nonremovable sections. Elsewhere, grouping simply alphabetizes by file name, a space-consuming exercise that forces you to do more scrolling to view folder contents. A new view for folder contents, Tiles, resembles but replaces the older Windows OSs' seldom-used Small Icons view. In Tiles view, the item's name and file type appear on multiple lines to the right of the icon, displaying slightly more information about the folder items, but occupying more window space.
Dial In, Take Over
If you rely on computers daily, you might well have a desktop PC at work, a laptop for business travel, and one or more home computers. Whistler Build 2250 includes Remote Control client and server software for connecting to a computer over a LAN, dial-up, or VPN connection. So while you work at home, you can retrieve files from or launch applications on your office computer, and view the interface on your local machine--either in a window or in full-screen mode.
Though they aren't as full-featured as third-party remote control utilities like LapLink.com's LapLink, Whistler's tools might suffice for users in need of the basics.
In testing Whistler's server using Windows 2000's terminal server client, I was able to connect to and take control of the Whistler machine without problems.
Only one user at a time can log on, either remotely or locally, but you can access files and shared printers from a third system without logging on. The remote user's session ends as soon as another person logs on to the machine--so if Junior sits down for a quick round of Quake III just when you're in the midst of juggling spreadsheets from the office, you're doomed.
As with other Whistler innovations, there's nothing terribly new here. The whole thing runs using Windows Terminal Services, a multiuser remote control system that Microsoft licensed from Citrix Systems Inc. a few years back and tacked onto Windows 2000 Server. Although the corporate version of Terminal Services was too expensive to catch on in a big way, this personal version could become very popular with telecommuters, travelers, and late-night workaholics.
Microsoft promises that many of Windows Me's innovations (see "All About Me," www.pcworld.com/sep2000/millennium) will show up in Whistler, but most are missing from Build 2250. Though Windows Movie Maker probably won't end up in the Windows.Net Professional product, business users could benefit from Win Me's networking wizard, Windows Media Player 7, and the System Restore rollback utility--all MIA in Build 2250.
Those features may show up in Whistler Beta 1, due later this fall, as may two other interesting no-shows: speech and handwriting recognition. Build 2250's Control Panel contains an applet labeled Speech v5.0 that bears grayed-out Vocabulary Builder and Vocabulary Editor buttons. Speech recognition seems completely disabled in this build. However, system-level support for speech recognition could finally make talking to your computer commonplace.
(Cubicle-farm denizens may want to start campaigning now for an office with a door.)Likewise, handwriting recognition is a disabled text-input option in Build 2250. But if it resembles the brilliant handwriting recognition software in the Pocket PC operating system at all, Windows.Net could inspire a new generation of high-powered, handheld tablet PCs.
Whistler Build 2250
What's up with Whistler? Here is the short list of new features:
*Handwriting and voice recognition capabilities could spur tablet PC development.
*Personal remote-control client and server combine to make telecommuting easier.
*Start Panel and enhanced Web folder content simplify online navigation.
*Visual Styles and Themes support a simplified desktop customization process.
An early version of the next Windows has interface updates, speech and handwriting recognition, and remote access tools.