Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Promise of Windows 7

This is my first post in a while where you won't find any mention of Apple news. Instead, the spotlight turns to Microsoft, and it's about time. I'm by no means a Microsoft fanboy, but they have a lot of smart people there so I'm always interested to talk about what they're working on, especially since we don't get news like this from them very often. It's been a long weekend of on call work for me (I hate DST) so let's get right to it.

Windows Azure

Last week, at the Professional Developers' Conference, Microsoft unveiled a glimpse into Windows 7, which they have codenamed Windows Azure (I love that color, but Longhorn was a good codename, too). What's kind of funny is that I was just listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago speculating that the next version of Windows would be in the clouds whereas I thought that it's more likely that consumers aren't ready and Windows 8 would be that OS. I was mostly wrong, it turns out.

I'm trying to put together the things I've read about Azure, so please correct me if I'm wrong. It sounds like it will be an OS that will live on Microsoft's servers, but I think that there will still be need to be installed on your computer, probably off of a download, or else it would be really slow. I think the point of it living in their data centers is that it makes it easier to distribute applications, and it gives rise to thin clients (computers with cheap hardware that are typically used as simple Internet machines or as workstations). They're really trying to grow the Live platform here and get into hosted computing, something that Amazon pioneered (at least on a large scale) with Amazon Web Services including the Simple Storage Service (S3) to easily, cheaply, and efficiently store/fetch data and Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) for on-demand processing power. I think this is less of a jab at Amazon then you might think because it feels like it's really targeted at enterprise clients. It'd make it easier to maintain a secure network in your company and setup everyone with the same stuff. I have no idea if this means that you can't run Azure without the Internet (probably so, I imagine it would be slightly similar to Google Gears) or if you can even buy it on a CD. I haven't seen such details revealed yet. I think you can think of it less like a remote desktop like a VNC server or Meebo and more like a different way to distribute and store software. I wonder if they'd make it so that you could remotely shut down your laptop then in case it was stolen? Imagine how much easier it would be to change computers if your software lived in the clouds. Even cooler would be syncing across multiple machines. Also, they could handle security patches so you wouldn't have to be as concerned about security. I wonder if it would act as a sandbox environment?

I still have a lot of questions, but I found some answers as I dug around. ZDNet posted a rundown of the features they noticed in the pre-Alpha build given out at PDC: device stage to make it easier to interact with your devices, action center to actually help troubleshoot issues, multi-touch and gestures (probably similar to Surface stuff), some sort of streaming media application called StreamOn, an improved animation framework (I suppose this would be Aero v2.0), and the ribbon UI stuff we see in Office 2007 (affectionately known as Office 12). Apparently, we'll have a public beta this December, which is more ambitious that I was expecting and I'm concerned that they're opening themselves up to what happened with Vista where people expected too much and then were disappointed when features got cut.

I know it's kind of superficial, but I like the new taskbar they're showing off:

The UI improvements unveiled so far are subtle, but nifty. On the taskbar, rather than text they're just big icons, which can be re-arranged, and mousing over a program icon lets you view screencaps of the windows open for it so you can select on. I hope there's an option to disable that because I don't like my windows being grouped, but if they pull it off right maybe it'll be easy to get used to. The really sweet addition though is something called a jump list, found by right clicking a task bar program icon or an item on the start menu, and just provide quick access to common features for an application. Applications can add custom entries to this, so that's just another way that they're trying to make Windows 7 more accessible for developers. To top it off, they made radical improvements to window management that let you focus on letting you give your attention to just a couple of applications at a time (hopefully this will scale to multiple monitors).

There's also Windows Media Player 12, which has vastly improved library management (I don't think anyone voluntarily uses the clunky library management that WMP 11 has), lots of little UI improvements, more codecs included right, out of the box, and support for networked media. Windows Media Player hasn't seen anything that has actually made it better in a very long time, so I feel like this is definitely an overdue change. Finally, Microsoft is really implementing what users have been wanting.

(EDIT: I accidentally forgot to bring up this article that mentioned a couple of important points. Windows 7 will, allegedly, improve laptop battery life and will run faster on Vista machines than Vista currently does. So aside from all the visual touch-ups, you will feel the improvements they made at very low levels. Other improvements are better memory management, improved crash resilience (i.e. learning how to run applications such that they don't crash), a sandbox for device drivers to avoid some of the ugly issues from Vista's launch, and it will be more reliable from day 1 rather than requiring a service pack to make it usable. I've actually heard from TWiT that the PDC build feels more like a beta 2 than a pre-alpha, which is an excellent sign compared to the trainwreck Vista build from 2003. Oh, and they couldn't name the 6 prior Windows versions but I think I can: 3.1, 95, 98, 2000, XP, and Vista.)

The kinds of changes we're seeing here are reminiscent of the jump from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 because they represent an entire paradigm shift in how you interact with Windows. This is really ballsy stuff from a company that I feel has become known for making safe bets on its core applications and simply hasn't been innovating enough unless you count what Microsoft Research is working on in a basement somewhere. I'm excited to see what Windows 7 will bring as we get closer to release candidates and my hopes are officially set high. Please, Microsoft, don't let us down.

Android Roadmap Out, but Sprint Not Impressed Yet

The good folks at Google have released an actual roadmap for their open-source, open mobile platform known as Android. It includes better support for localization, support for SIM cards, and an API for software-based keyboards and text completion (for on-screen typing). They don't have a time line for these features, but it's great that they're loosening the reigns on discussing Android and that they've been accepting patches from the community.

Sadly, the Sprint CEO sucks and feels like the platform isn't good enough for him to want to sell a phone that has the Sprint logo on it that runs Android. As a Sprint user, I can assure you that this is laughable. Sprint has the absolute worst selection of phones, and the Sprint brand is ok with the Palm OS, which I absolutely hate. This is clearly a ploy to play hard ball or some other such stupid tactic to earn leverage with Google. They're going to have to carry an Android phone next year if they don't want to lose customers (I will definitely leave Sprint if a good Android phone comes out on another carrier). I think he's bluffing, but it's still kind of funny that he's so bitter that T-Mobile was first to the punch.

Quick Notes

I'm really tired and need my beauty (yeah right) sleep, so I'm going to briefly go over the remaining news items I had tagged.

Google Labs has released more features for Gmail, this time in gadget form. They're actually pretty useful and include calendar integration and a to do list.

Netflix has allowed streaming movies to its PC subscribers for a while now, but it has now migrated this player to Silverlight from Flash and so it readily supports Macs (Intel-based, that is) and PCs. Now it just has to work on Linux and it's set!

Wal-mart took down its mp3 store, a DRM shop, a couple of weeks ago to the dismay of its customers because they said they'd be shutting down the servers that distribute the keys for you to be able to play this music on other computers. They later extended the lifetime of these servers and have now unveiled a DRM-free mp3 store, like Amazon's but with less content, lower prices, and a worse UI (which tends to crash my Firefox to the point that I'm afraid to visit it). Is that not a strange series of a events? What an excellent way to confuse your customers. At least it's DRM-free though.

If you want to see the Internet through the eyes of a Chinese citizen, there's now a Firefox plug-in that can get you as close as possible to the experience without the long flight. So check it out if you want to feel the sting of censorship.

I now have LittleBigPlanet and it's really really awesome - even better than the beta. Yes, I do plan on posting a review for it, but rather than doing what gaming magazines do and rush through playing it, I'm going to let it linger in my mind for a few weeks and see where I stand after all this hype has died down and it's just another game on my short shelf of PS3 games (see my beta review until then). I want to give a big picture of the game. Anyway, the developers are going to be supporting it with more levels in the near future, presumably free since you can copy the levels you play online to your moon (your planet for your creations)), and downloadable content, both free (but limited in time available for download) and paid, in the form of costumes and level editor tools.

See you all back here next week! Be good until then.

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