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Originally published Wednesday, October 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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More stable, simpler Microsoft Windows 7 may be easier to love

Microsoft won praise for practical improvements to basic tasks and an early version of the program that surprised reviewers with its stability.

Seattle Times technology reporter

LOS ANGELES — Microsoft's first public demonstration of Windows 7 on Tuesday did not wow audiences with flashy graphics or a wholesale reconstruction of the operating system's core elements.

Instead, the company won praise for practical improvements to basic tasks and an early version of the program that surprised reviewers with its stability.

"They've done a fair bit of work to make the little things you want to do on a day-to-day basis just that much easier," said Kevin Perkins, a principal consultant with Hewlett-Packard in Brisbane, Australia.

"Is it a revolution like Vista was? No. They've obviously polished an awful lot of what Vista had and learned a lot more about how people are going to interact with it."

Windows engineering boss Steven Sinofsky showed off several changes in Windows 7 at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference here and told software developers how the company is avoiding its Windows Vista missteps.

Some of the features:

• The task bar will allow people to organize applications in any order they choose, something not possible before Windows 7.

It can also give a thumbnail view of open windows before expanding them to the full screen. Once open, windows will be easier to place side by side for copying, say, from one document to another.

• Another common task, creating and managing a home network, will be easier. The software automatically creates a network of PCs, printers, wireless photo frames and other devices. Documents, music, photos and other media stored in "libraries" anywhere on the network can be easily searched and accessed from another Windows 7 PC on the network.

• Windows 7 will support PCs that can be controlled with gestures — for example, allowing people to scroll through a document by flicking a finger across the screen.

Microsoft is also removing significant features from Windows 7.

Built-in e-mail, calendar, photo organization and other lightweight programs will now be distributed as a free, downloadable set called "Windows Live Essentials."

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"There was a level of redundancy" between the features in Windows and the Windows Live online services, said Brian Hall, general manager of Windows Live.

The "Essentials" applications will link up with online services, including Web-based e-mail and photo-sharing tools from Microsoft and its competitors, such as Google.

More flexibility

The change gives Microsoft more flexibility in planning its operating system and online-services releases, Hall said.

"Our goal is to have a seamless experience across the PC, Web and phone," Hall said, echoing Microsoft's theme for the day.

Kip Kniskern, who tracks Microsoft's services efforts at LiveSide.net, said removing the features from the operating system itself could also help Microsoft steer clear of antitrust issues.

Microsoft was forced to sell earlier versions of Windows in the European Union with the media player stripped out.

"It certainly doesn't hurt them to pull stuff out and make things more modular," Kniskern said.

Apart from individual features, Sinofsky said Microsoft has elevated its work on what he called the "fundamentals" of Windows, including security, reliability, compatibility and performance.

He said it's too early in the development process to make specific claims about the fundamentals, but early reviewers, such as veteran Windows watcher Ed Bott, have chimed in.

He called the early copy of Windows 7 he reviewed "wicked fast."

"In a very long day's worth of use it has yet to crash or display any of the flaky behavior you might expect from a beta," Bott wrote in his review.

Microsoft aims to limit compatibility issues by making few changes to the kernel — the central component — of the operating system.

In Vista, major changes caused many devices and applications to become incompatible because the "ecosystem" of companies that build products for Windows was not ready in time for its launch.

Compatibility issue

The Vista compatibility problems have since been addressed, with 95 percent of Windows Vista PCs able to get all necessary device drivers, Sinofsky said.

"There are no changes [in Windows 7] that are going to require the reworking of that ecosystem," he said.

"So all of the devices and compatibility work that have gone on in the past two years with Windows Vista will pay off in the work we've done with Windows 7."

The next step for Windows 7 is a more complete beta test version, scheduled for early 2009. The company is sticking to its January 2010 target to release the software.

In the meantime, several Windows 7 mysteries remain, including its cost and minimum hardware requirements.

It appears, however, the hardware bar may be lower than it was for Vista. Sinofsky brandished a low-cost "netbook" with a 1-gigahertz processor and 1 gigabyte of memory running Windows 7.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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