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A new way to do Windows

photo
[Microsoft]
The Welcome screen will be the starting place for users of the next consumer version of Windows.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 29, 2001


A look ahead at Whistler, the next consumer version of Microsoft's operating system, shows a new appearance, a new level of technical support and more promises of better reliability.

This time, Microsoft says, Windows will be different.

Code-named Whistler, the new operating system that's due out within a year will be more dependable for home PC users, easier to use and less cluttered. It will have some new features such as -- ready? -- free online help with responses from live technicians.

Such promises are important because as many as 90 percent of the world's personal computers run some version of Windows.

If the early hype for the revamped operating system sounds familiar, it should. Since the debut of Windows 95, Microsoft rolled out Windows 98 promising improved multimedia performance . . . and better stability. Then Windows Me came out in September, with new features such as video editing and networking capabilities . . . and vows of improved reliability.

"It's not just businesses that want stability and reliability on the desktop," said Chris LeTocq, an analyst with the Gartner Group research company. "Consumers have had to suffer with the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies with Windows 9x for a long time. And anything Microsoft can do to alleviate that will be good."

This time, consumers will be getting an operating system based on the Windows 2000 system that's used by businesses. Windows 2000 has been praised for its stability and reliability, unlike the consumer versions of Windows that depend on the 20-year-old DOS code as a foundation. An operating system is the brains of a computer, telling personal computers how to perform basic functions and run programs such as games, Internet browsers and word processing.

But consumers who want to upgrade to Whistler may have to buy new machines that can handle its technical demands. Even recent machines may not work well with it. And older software may need to be replaced, too.

That would be a welcome development for computermakers and software developers who face a slowdown in demand from users who see no need to trade up from what they have.

Microsoft is beginning to give the public a glimpse of Whistler's features as it prepares for a release date that's described generally as late this year.

It's clear the new Windows will be different, from the code that works behind the scenes to the look of the computer "desktop." Microsoft sees many of the features as essential to the home "digital lifestyle."

A welcome screen: Each person who uses the PC will be identified on an opening screen and can click an icon to log on. When that user finishes, the PC automatically returns to the welcome screen, saving work and keeping it private.

"If you want to change users in today's world, you have to close off your applications, log off and let the other person log on," said Steve Guggenheimer, senior director of the Personal Services and Devices Group at Microsoft. "It's not a very friendly way to go."

Appearance: Gone is the icon-littered desktop, replaced by a clean screen with only wallpaper of the user's choosing. The Start button becomes the control center, highlighting icons with the most frequently used programs and organizing the rest, such as Control Panel, to show the main functions a user needs.

"We found over the years that there's been some clutter as more and more icons have appeared on the desktop," Guggenheimer said. "What users have told us is they want to be able to use this as their space, to be able to add things here that they want."

And if a user wants the traditional look, that will be available, too.

Support: Users want their machines to work, but Windows has been legendary for its problems and complexities. With Whistler, a consumer will be able to get live online tech support, according to Greg Sullivan, Microsoft's lead project manager for Windows. It's similar to the help offered on some Web sites: A user will contact Microsoft online. When a tech responds, he will be able to take over the user's PC and work on the problem. Sullivan demonstrated the function for Tech Times, showing how one PC could control another.

While the function sounds appealing, it's likely to raise questions from people who are concerned about security issues and who are leery of mighty Microsoft learning too much about their machines.

Networking: Microsoft chairman Bill Gates sees the PC as the technological heart of the 21st century home. It will funnel data, communications and other information to and from a variety of devices throughout the home and beyond for users with handheld devices.

To do that, Whistler needs to be dependable enough for a PC to run around the clock without glitches such as the notorious Blue Screen of Death that plague current versions of Windows (with ominous warnings such as: "A fatal exception 0D has occurred at 0028:C000B25A in VXD VMM (01)+

0000A25A. The current application will be terminated"). Since Whistler is based on Windows 2000, the company says it has the technical foundation to make that happen.

Microsoft walks a fine line in promoting Whistler, Gartner Group's LeTocq says. As Microsoft boasts that Whistler is stable and reliable, he says, there's inevitably "a strong suggestion that what it sells to consumers today is not."

He expects the consumer version of Whistler to be available in time for the holiday shopping season, with an updated business version by early in 2002.

For consumers, it won't be an automatic decision to upgrade.

"Certainly one of the major challenges for Microsoft is going to be how do they get old hardware to work, particularly in a consumer environment where hardware has an extended life cycle," LeTocq said. "And some of the older stuff simply is not going to work."

It's likely that those who use Windows 95 won't be able to upgrade. They'll need new, more powerful PCs to handle Whistler. Even some PCs running Windows 98 may not have the horsepower for the new operating system.

The current guess is that Whistler will list minimum specifications similar to those for Windows 2000 Professional: a 133-megahertz Pentium chip, 64 megabytes of random access memory and 650 megabytes of hard disk space. But when Tech Times Solutions columnist John Torro booted a beta version of Whistler with 64MB of RAM, he reported it was sluggish.

Microsoft's minimum specs have traditionally been low, some say too low for smooth operation. "Double what Microsoft claims and you'll be happy," said Harry McCracken, executive features editor at PC World magazine.

Some people may discover hardware or software problems after they try to install the new system. "With any new operating system, compatibility is always an issue," McCracken said. "And it's been a big issue for Windows 2000, since Windows 2000 doesn't claim to support everything out there like (Windows) 98 and Me."

Others may find the new look confusing, as well. "When Windows 95 hit the scene, there was a significant learning curve," McCracken said. "Any time you change things around, people will have to relearn. But it sounds like there are a lot of intelligent tweaks to the interface."

McCracken says those who are unsure about Whistler may want to wait to see how others fare. But he thinks the new system holds promise.

"If it really is as stable as Windows 2000 and does all the stuff Windows Me does, it could be very appealing," he said.

* * *

- Contact Dave Gussow at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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