Microsoft to unveil test version of Windows 7

CNN Post

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- The next version of Microsoft Windows, the software that defines the computing experience for most people, will nag users much less than its much-maligned predecessor, Vista. PC users will be able to test the new edition early next year.

Microsoft promises its Windows 7 operating system will be an improvement on the much-maligned Windows Vista.

The world's largest software maker also is making Word, Excel and other key elements of Office -- its flagship "productivity" programs -- able to run in a Web browser. The move is meant to help confront rivals such as Google Inc. that offer free word processing and spreadsheet programs online, threatening one of Microsoft Corp.'s most precious profit centers.

The Windows and Office news came Tuesday at a Microsoft conference for software developers.

The forthcoming Windows 7 will let users choose to see fewer alerts and warnings from their computers. Rampant notifications alerting people to security risks irked many Vista users.

"We had all the best intentions of helping to secure the PC platform even more, particularly for novice PC users who needed to be protected," said Steven Sinofsky, a senior vice president in Microsoft's Windows group. But Sinofsky acknowledged that Microsoft needed to work more closely with outside companies to avoid a similar mess this time.

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Michael Silver, an analyst for Gartner Inc., said a smoother debut for Windows 7 is critical for Microsoft.

"The real hurdle is to get Vista's reputation behind them," he said.

Windows 7 keeps some of the significant design changes that debuted in Vista, but tosses out others.

In an interview, Julie Larson-Green, a Windows vice president, offered one small example: In Vista, Microsoft took the "add printer" feature out of the Start menu, but is restoring it in Windows 7 after users complained.

Larson-Green said some changes in Vista made sense to developers but weren't fully tested on actual PC users -- a misstep she seems committed not to repeat.

With Windows 7, Microsoft is also making subtle but useful changes to the task bar along the bottom of the screen. The designers have removed redundant buttons that launch applications. When users roll over a program's icon in the task bar, it will be easier to see how many documents are open, and switch between them.

Microsoft also showed off "jumplists," a quick way of organizing recently used files or popular program features. And it introduced a concept called "libraries," which automatically collects similar files scattered across PCs on a home network and displays them together in a single folder. That could be handy for organizing a family's digital photos stored in disparate places.

Addressing another complaint about Vista, Microsoft said Windows 7 will be faster and need less memory to run. Vista generally needs costlier hardware configurations than the older Windows XP.

Sinofsky held up a "netbook" -- a low-cost, low-power laptop that would have a hard time running Vista -- and said it's working with Windows 7.

Microsoft's early 2009 target for people to begin toying with Windows 7 is striking because the Redmond, Wash.-based company promised deadlines it couldn't keep when it was developing Vista. Microsoft is trying hard to avoid a similar debacle this time. Sinofsky said there is no date yet for the next milestone, a "release to manufacturing" version of Windows 7, but reiterated that the system is set to go on sale in early 2010.

Silver, the analyst, noted that Windows Vista rejigged complex aspects of the software's plumbing, while Windows 7 is largely a cosmetic overhaul. That might spare this launch from many of the compatibility programs that dogged Vista.

Silver was impressed by how Windows 7 handles home networking with fewer headaches than Vista or XP. A big improvement on that front could help keep customers who consider ditching Windows, swayed by Apple Inc.'s claims that such tasks are easier on a Mac.

Building on a broader strategy to meld the best elements of Web and desktop software, Microsoft also showed off lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote software that work in Web browsers and look as they normally do, but don't have to be installed on a PC.

The new programs were running "in the cloud" on the new Windows Azure system Microsoft unveiled Monday, a move aimed at helping it catch up with Google and other nimbler Web companies. Azure lets Microsoft run software and store data in its own massive data centers around the world, instead of requiring people to install programs on their own PCs.

The Office Web programs represent what Microsoft believes is a more polished take on what Google has tried. Microsoft's online Office programs let people work on a document at the same time, and make it easier to publish charts and PowerPoint presentations to blogs with few clicks.

The Web software, to be offered without charge for regular PC users, will launch with the next version of Office. No date has been set.

Silver, the analyst, said he had always expected Microsoft to build on its rudimentary Web Office tools, and noted that the company still has time to tinker, because relatively few people use Google's online documents offering today.

The peek at the new programs didn't address his biggest concern, though: whether Microsoft can promote Web versions without undercutting its very lucrative desktop software business.

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