BitDepth 666 - February 10

Microsoft introduces an aggressive public beta (and public relations effort) with Windows 7.
A new view

Microsoft's Windows 7 Public Beta running Google's Chrome and Picasa 3

Microsoft's energetic rethinking of its operating system is already running on customer screens through a massive public testing programme that has only one mission, fix Vista.
As of this writing, the beta test programme is still open to anyone willing to sign up for it, download a 1.7 GB disk image and install software that's at least a year away from completion on their computers.
Public testing of software is now becoming a fairly common part of the development process, an acknowledgement by publishers that while the process is never quite finished, expanding the fuzzy line between the product in a box and developer code helps both programmers and users.

Adobe proved that two years ago when they released their image processing tool Lightroom into the wild for more than a year, inviting comment, suggestions and bug reports for a product that changed both drastically and positively over its life as a free but incomplete product for photographers.
It took Microsoft five years to put Windows Vista on the market, much of it apparently spent behind closed, soundproofed doors. The product suffered so many critical issues on release that users began to do the unheard of, begging Microsoft to keep the older version of the operating system on store shelves. To find a product that's been as vehemently spurned by Microsoft's core audience, you'd have to go back as far as 1995's Microsoft Bob.

The Vista issue
The challenge facing the Windows development team is getting some distance between the perception of Vista and the need to make it more decisively the future operating system of choice for XP users.
The company tried to do some of that work with the '
Mojave Experiment', a blind taste test that Microsoft staged with end users across America. The public relations event delivered some entertaining advertisements and no perceptible change in Vista's tarnished reputation.
Most of that reputation is undeserved. Windows Vista is a solid effort at a mainstream operating system. It's robust, attractive and forward looking in its approach to usability.

On a modern computer running software that's qualified for it, the Vista experience is as attractive and even as entertaining as those surprised Mojave users make it out to be.
The problems arise when you buy an off-the-shelf copy of Vista and attempt to upgrade an older version of Windows. Almost all of the major issues with Vista have cropped up in such circumstances. Older software won't run properly, older peripherals that require custom software like scanners and printers begin to act like the demon possessed.
As a result, large companies with massive Windows installations and legacy hardware have been particularly skittish about the upgrade to Vista.

The Windows 7 experience
Windows 7 is a compelling piece of work. The base installation of the public beta, said by the company to be their "our most premium, full-featured offering" is almost half that of Windows Ultimate, 6GB vs 11.5GB. 
At least part of the reason for that is Microsoft's decision to move some of the add-ons in Vista to a separate download on the company's Windows Live website. Unfortunately, that means no photo album software or address book, though Internet Explorer 8 is included with the beta package.

Windows 7 boots with almost embarrassing speed on my system. Vista takes one minute, 57 seconds to get to a mouse active desktop compared to one minute, seven seconds for Windows 7.
This early version of Windows is far from feature complete and isn't recommended for production work, but OS adventurers will love it. The new version of the OS builds on the strengths of Vista but doesn't address its more irritating compatibility shortcomings; so hardware and software that doesn't work well on Vista isn't likely to improve under the new beta. 
Surprisingly Microsoft's own Pro Photo Tools, software from the company intended for professional photographers, freezes in Windows 7 and the Kapersky Anti-Virus software that I use keeps failing with a corrupted database. AVG's free antivirus software works well though, as does Google's Picasa 3 for viewing images. Testers with issues like these can offer feedback to Microsoft.

With luck, Windows 7 will continue to evolve into the operating system that its users really need. Windows General Manager Mike Ybarra has announced that the company plans to scale back the retail product to just two versions, Home Premium and Professional, a sure sign that Microsoft is paying attention to the legitimate frustrations that Windows users have had to work through with Vista.

Key changes
• User Access Control is far less intrusive, almost helpful
• New Action centre aggregates critical user interventions into a single window
• Attractive Aero inspired TaskBar has application window previews and "jump lists" that link to recent items or a browser history
• Wireless networks show up in a useful menu of choices for mobile users
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