A work in progress, but a stunning work in progress

Like Windows 3.1, Whistler is a point release upgrade to a major operating system release that's going to change everything. We could debate Microsoft's version numbering scheme for eternity, but the simple truth of the matter is that Whistler--Windows version 5.1, likely to be named Windows.NET ("Windows Dot Net") 1.0 when it's released in late 2001--is going to be a must-have upgrade for all Windows users. Note that I didn't qualify that in any way: If you use Windows--Windows 95, 98, NT 4, 2000, whatever--you will want to upgrade to Whistler.

Sounds bold, doesn't it? But it's true: One thing that's gotten lost in all the talk about the next generation Internet and Microsoft's "Dot NET" plans is that this company makes a killer operating system. And when Microsoft is on a jihad--as it is now--the company does its best work. As the ultimate client for Microsoft's future Internet, Whistler will be the front-end, the "user experience" if you will, for all of the plumbing and services work that Microsoft will create over the next few years. And because Microsoft wants you to use Whistler--and not an iMac, Linux box, or Web terminal--to access the Internet, play games, and get your work done, the company, finally, is acting like it gives a damn. So Whistler will come together in less than two years, compared to the nearly four-year-long development of its predecessor, Windows 2000. Perhaps most importantly, Whistler will finally deliver on the promise Microsoft made to combine its consumer and business OSes into a single codebase. They all said that it wouldn't happen. But here it is. <% ' Added so can inventory as Connected Home articles. kw = "CH" %>

Genesis
Whistler has undergone a strange evolution. During the Windows 2000 beta, Microsoft began work on subsequent versions of the OS, a practice it began with Windows 95, when its successor, Memphis (Windows 98), began development at virtually the same time. Originally, Microsoft had two projects in the works, "Odyssey" and "Neptune," which focused on the business and consumer-oriented follow-ups to Windows 2000 respectively. But in late 1999--as exclusively reported in WinInfo--the company decided to meld the two projects into one, which it renamed Whistler.

Neptune, especially, was a mess. Originally designed to employ an HTML-like user interface, Neptune would have replaced the Explorer shell with a "Start Page" and other Activity Centers designed to provide users with simple front-ends to common tasks. Odyssey, meanwhile, was focusing on the changes to Windows 2000 that customers requested most often. Internal turmoil aside, things changed dramatically and Whistler was born. The Activity Centers design was largely tossed aside (though you can see vestiges of the idea in Windows Media Player 7, Help & Support (Figure), and other Whistler/Windows Me features) and a new XML-based user interface was devised. Called Visual Styles, this new user interface shows up in rough form in the first official Whistler Preview (build 2250), which was shown at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2000 in mid-July 2000. But Visual Styles isn't the only change brought by Whistler. In this look at the Whistler Preview, I'll demonstrate those things that have changed between Windows 2000 and Whistler.

A first look at the Whistler Preview
The Whistler Preview is available in Personal and Professional editions, though the final version will, of course, include Server editions as well (Microsoft later supplied Advanced Server build 2239 to testers and I take a quick look at that version here as well). Whistler Personal Edition is designed as an upgrade for Windows 9x/Me users, while Professional is obviously targeted at the business-oriented users of Windows 2000 Professional. At this stage in the game, the differences between Personal and Professional are not that obvious: Professional includes a Remote Desktop option (based on Terminal Services) that will help system administrators remotely administer Whistler desktops, for example. But the big difference--and one that's sure to cause some anger among computer enthusiasts--is that Personal Edition only supports one processor. This "feature" wasn't enabled in the preview (that is, it's possible to get dual processor support working in Whistler Personal 2250), but Microsoft assures me that the final version will support a single processor only.

Going forward, there will probably be more differences, such as different default user interfaces or whatever, and it will be interesting to see how these two versions of Whistler diverge. For now, however, the user experience on both editions is functionally identical, employing a Windows 2000-like Explorer look and feel by default. Whistler runs much, much more slowly than Windows 2000 on comparable hardware, and consumes many more megabytes of RAM, but I expect this to improve over time as this build is just a pre-beta version. Comparing this release to Windows NT 5.0 (nee Windows 2000) Beta 2 might be a fair comparison: It's very close to its predecessor, but it's got enough new features to make you sit up and take notice.

And the new features are very interesting. Right off the bat, Whistler confronts you with a logon screen straight out of Neptune, the original post-Windows 2000 project for consumers. Continuing the Neptune theme, Whistler provides you with a friendly, graphical logon screen (Figure) that allows you to choose images for each person that needs to logon to the system. Whistler ships with five Weeble-like images, but you can already add your own if desired and it's expected that future releases will include more sample images for easier customization.

Once the Whistler desktop loads (Figure)--which takes an eternity compared to Windows 2000--things don't seem so different. The familiar desktop, Start button, and taskbar are all present, and things work as you might expect. However, a few right-clicks reveal a bounty of improvements, including (finally!) a right-click option on the Start button that lets you display--God forbid--Start menu properties. In every previous version of Windows, you had to click on the taskbar to get Start menu properties (and no, I don't know why). Start menu properties are just part of the larger Start and Taskbar Properties dialog, which has been extensively overhauled with numerous new features. The most obvious new feature is called "Clean up the notification area," sort of a "personalized menu"-like change that allows you to hide icons in the system tray (to the left of the clock) unless you need them. This feature kicks in without any warning, but you can also modify its behavior with this option: Microsoft employs a small blue chevroned icon that covers up the tray icons. When you click the icon, its slides left, revealing the tray icons once again. And when you move the mouse out of the tray, it slides back. No doubt this feature was added to improve the available real estate at the bottom of the screen, and it seems to work well. The blue icon has occasional graphical glitches that I'm willing to chalk up to it being a pre-beta.

Right-clicking the desktop and choosing Properties reveals some interesting tidbits, most of which are bad news. First of all, the dreaded Active Desktop isn't just the default option in Whistler, it's the only option. I'm not sure whether this will change in future builds, but right now, we're stuck with Active Desktop and all of the overhead it adds to the system. And the Display Properties dialog has changed dramatically, mostly to support the new user interface skinning feature, called Visual Styles. But the changes to this dialog make many options require more mouse clicks than they did in Windows 2000, and this is deplorable. Windows 2000 had already come under fire by power users for making simple tasks require a mind-numbing series of steps. Well, it looks like this is continuing in Whistler, and the Display Properties dialog is a perfect example.

First up is the Themes tab, which is hard to fathom. The word "Themes" suggests that this tab will eventually interact with the Desktop Themes applet, which is still separately available. But the "Theme Settings" button on this tab launches another dialog (Advanced Display and Theme Properties) with tabs for Web and Effects. These tabs were previously available directly in Display Properties. The Web tab allows you to add, remove, and modify Active Desktop items, while the Effects tab controls such options as font smoothing, desktop icons, and the like.

The Background tab of the Display Properties dialog remains virtually unchanged from Windows 2000, though there is a button marked "Web" that links to the Web tab of the Advanced Display and Theme Properties, making this option available from two different locations in the same dialog. That's just stupid, though I guess I understand the reasoning. The Screen Saver tab appears to be unchanged from Windows 2000; like its counterpart, it offers a link to the Power Options Properties dialog. In some places, this dialog has renamed "Standby" to "Sleep," which is fine, but its not yet consistent. I'm sure this will be fixed by the final version. The Settings tab is also identical to its predecessor.

The incomplete Appearance tab is the most interesting option in Display Properties, as it offers a way to interact with the new Visual Styles feature. Visual Styles is an XML-based "skinning" option that allows you to choose from a variety of pre-made styles or, eventually, make your own. This is similar to Themes, except that Visual Styles can literally affect every single user interface element you see onscreen, from the Start button to the little widgets in the corner of windows (Figure). Microsoft's first stab at this technology was used in Windows Media Player 7, but other programs--such as Winamp--have offered similar skinning features for years. And third party applications that allow you to change the UI in Windows, like WindowBlinds, seem to work in a manner similar to Visual Styles.

In any event, Microsoft ships only one Visual Style in the Whistler Preview. Called "Professional," this style highlights the problems with this technology, as there are numerous graphical glitches in virtually every single window that's opened when this style is used. However, the Professional Visual Style is elegant looking if a bit bright--the color scheme is largely comprised of very light grays that get washed out easily on laptop displays. Gadgets and controls are especially well-done in this style. And because it's the big new visual change, virtually all of the screenshots in this review use the Professional style.

It should be noted at this point that some features are missing from the Display Properties dialog in this release. For example, you can't change any of the screen metrics, such as font types and sizes, even when a Visual Style isn't used. I'm sure they'll fix this in a future release, but the overall result is that many display options simply aren't available and that can be aggravating (though temporary, I hope).

Changes to Explorer
I don't want to focus too much on the features that are unique to the single Visual Style, "Professional," that ships with the Whistler Preview, though certainly this contributes to the overall change in the look and feel of Windows. But there are numerous other changes, some major, some minor, in the Explorer shell that require examination.

Mousing around My Computer, it's easy to find these changes. First up is a curious new icon layout that I first described in my preview of the Whistler alpha (see review). The default view in My Computer (Figure) also includes a new Web view (which is inconsistent: Some windows use the Web view from Windows Me) that adds numerous options such as "Tasks" (search for files, view system properties), "Other Places" (links to My Documents, My Network Places, and Control Panel) and "Details," which can be toggled; it's off by default. Details will display information about the selected item in the window; if a drive is selected, for example, a pie chart with used and unused disk space will display. But the information in the Web view is "live" so that it changes appropriately, based on the sort of information that is displayed or selected in the icon view. For example, when you select a file, the "Tasks" option list is replaced by "File tasks" so that you can easily rename the file, move or copy the file, or do any other file-related tasks. And though Microsoft is to be chastised for not giving us the "New Folder" toolbar icon we've been clamoring for since 1995, "Make a new folder here" does appear in the Web view option list under "Folder tasks" when no file in a folder is selected.

But back to the new icon layout. The default icon view is now "Icon" (which is analogous to "Large Icons" in other versions of Windows), with a new layout option called "Show in Groups" (Figure). For the main My Computer view, this makes sense: The top group, "Local Drives," includes all of the hard drives on your system, while the next group, "Removable Media," contains the floppies, CD-ROMs, and other removable media you might have. If you choose to display Control Panel in My Computer (it's off by default, in an effort to further simplify the interface), that icon will come under a third group called "Other." So far, so good, but the "Show in Groups" option fails miserably when you navigate into a drive, because we're used to seeing folders at the top of Explorer windows and this isn't how they display in Whistler. Instead, items that are displayed by "type" (the default; other choices include name, size, modified date, and author) are listed alphabetically by type. So, for example, if you navigate into the C:\WINDOWS directory (which, yes, is oddly capitalized like that; it replaces C:\winnt finally!), the groups appear as ActiveX Cache Folder, Application, Application extension, BAK file, etc. And this means that folders are very far down the list, under F. Hopefully Microsoft will change this before long, because it's aggravating and contrary to the ways things have always worked in Windows. And a minor gripe: Each file type includes a parenthetical notation about the number of items there are of that type. So, for example, the Application type might be listed as "Application (17 items). But when there's only one item of that type, as there is for ActiveX Cache Folder, it's incorrectly listed as "ActiveX Cache Folder (1 items)."

As I mentioned in my preview of the Whistler alpha (see review), Microsoft has done away with Small Icons for some reason and added a new icon view style called Tiles, which, as far as I can tell, is totally useless. The Tiles view style inexplicably organizes the icons into large tiles that are mostly empty space, so that each icon has an empty area twice its normal width on the right side. What the point of this space might be is unknown, and a full screen My Computer window can only display three columns of icons when this view is chosen. Doubtless I'm missing something here, but hopefully they have more planned. One thing that's even more disconcerting is that only certain view styles and icon layouts can be combined. For example, you can arrange Icon, Details or Thumbnail view with "Show in Groups," but not List view. This seems like a weird limitation and is, hopefully, just a sign of this feature's immaturity.

Furthermore, many of the folders seem to follow their own muse. Even though most of the system uses the "Show in Groups" option, My Network Places defaults to normal Icon view (where "Show in Groups" is unchecked). Enabling "Show in Groups" reveals why: My Network Places uses inane groups like "A" (Add Network Place), "C" (Computers Near Me), and "E" (Entire Network), which is actually pretty humorous. Here's to hoping that they can think up more creative groups such as "Default Network Places" or whatever.

The Control Panel (Figure) sports a completely new default view called "Simple Control Panel view" that segregates the Control Panel icons into logical groups like "Appearance & Themes" and "Printers & Other Hardware" using a semi-attractive HTML interface. While the novelty of this approach makes it seem more useful than it really is, actual use will probably force most users to turn "Classic Control Panel view" back on. Quick: You want to access Folder Options. Which Simple Control Panel icon corresponds to that option? Is it Appearance & Themes? Sorry, not there. Or perhaps it's under "Accessibility Options"? Nope. Actually, it's under "Other Control Panel Options." But to discover this, you'll need to navigate through the artificial hierarchy of the Simple Control Panel in a mind numbing effort to find the option you want.

This sort of thing is called an iterative or task-based user interface and it's completely inappropriate for the Control Panel. The simple Control Panel view in Windows Me (figure) is actually vastly superior because it doesn't try to confuse you with groups of tasks, rather it simply presents those options people need most often and then provides a way to see the whole list. In Whistler, you actually have to pause, consider the options, and then hope you choose the right one. Let's use our Folder Options example from above to see how this works (or doesn't work, in this case). You might logically assume that Folder Options could be found in "Appearance & Themes"; after all, folder options can change the look and feel of the system dramatically. But when you choose this option in Whistler's "simple" Control Panel, you are then faced with a new list of tasks. These include:

  • Change my theme
  • Change my screen saver
  • Change my wallpaper
  • Change the size of my screen
However, if you have Web view turned on (ironically, you turn it off with Folder Options), there will be a list of "See Also" options that does include a link to Folder Options. But the discrepancy here is huge: the list of tasks found under "Appearance & Themes" are not the names of Control Panel icons but rather a list of tasks that will launch Control Panel applets. So a more consistent approach would be to include a list called "Other tasks" that includes "Change my folder options." It's these types of inconsistencies that cause migraines and high blood pressure for those that actually care about user interfaces, but let's just say that the simple Control Panel is "simple" in all the wrong ways. I hope Microsoft at least has the sense to leave this off by default in Server and Professional.

Before I stop carping about this, let's look at it another way. What's really simpler: A list of 28 icons that accurately explain their functionality, or a list of 10 vague "categories" that each navigate to a slightly less vague list of 3 to 5 "tasks" each? What's quicker: Scanning one long clear list, or navigating between several smaller unclear lists? Think about it.

In the My Documents folder, a My Music folder sits alongside My Pictures, though it hasn't yet been elevated to the same status of Shell Folder. My Pictures, however, has been changed somewhat, and not always for the better (Figure). The default view now includes a bizarre preview area that sits above the icon view in the right side of the window. I think Microsoft did this because the Web view preview is now off by default, but it takes up so much real estate that it's more annoying than anything. Furthermore, Microsoft leaves only enough room for one row of thumbnail icons at the bottom of the window: If you have more than a handful of images in here, you'll have to scroll endlessly to view the other images within the mini window you get. A host of new options are available for the new preview area, however, including options for showing the previous or next image, zoom in or out, rotation, resizing, and slideshow. But the rotation icons actually change the underlying image, instead of simply changing the preview, which is not what I want. And Microsoft has changed the default handler for bitmap images from Paint to a new Image Preview program, which I can't stand. They did this in Millennium as well.

The biggest changes to Explorer haven't yet happened, however. As I mention below in my look at Whistler Advanced Server (build 2239), Microsoft will be building an HTML-like "Start Page" that will provide a simple task-oriented front end to the entire system. The company plans to make this option available as an option so that you will click the Start button and launch the Start Page instead of the Start menu. Hopefully, we'll know more about this by the release of Beta 1 in September, but the pieces are all in place in the current build for this to happen.

Overall, the current state of the Whistler version of Explorer is in flux as Microsoft transitions from the pre-Internet Explorer of Windows 95 to the Internet-infused version we'll see when this product ships next year.

Internet Explorer and related technologies
Internet Explorer and Outlook Express have been updated to version 5.6 (Figure) in this release, though it's not clear what, if any, changes are present. IE 5.6 seems to include exactly the same features as 5.5, though that could obviously change over time (Figure). Ditto for Outlook Express.

Oddly, Whistler doesn't include Windows Media Player 7, though I expect that the first beta will. Instead, WMP 6.4 is included in this release.

Remote Desktop
In Windows 2000, Microsoft migrated the previously separate Terminal Server technology into the core OS, giving any Server edition of Windows 2000 remote access capabilities. In Whistler, this capability has been extended into the Professional edition, though not the Personal edition, and its been renamed as Remote Desktop (Figure). If enabled, other users will be able to connect to a Whistler Professional desktop remotely and run applications as if they were sitting at the machine. This feature has several implications, the most important being remote administration: In a corporate scenario, administrators will be able to connect to end users' machines and fix problems without having to physically be there. We can joke all we want about the health problems with this approach, but the reality is that this feature will save enterprises time and money, and it?s a worthy addition to the product. Another key benefit of this feature is that users will be able to remotely access their work machines from home, opening up new telecommuting possibilities. Rather than redundantly copy as much data as possible between a work desktop and a laptop or home machine, users can simply access their exact desktop.

One caveat: This feature is "admin only," so you can only have one connection at a time. But it also forces you to log out before an admin can connect. If you don't, the admin can choose to automatically log you out so that he or she can remotely administer your machine. This makes sense, but might be a roadblock if something is wrong with the system and the user can't logout for some reason.

Remote Desktop is enabled from the Remote tab of the System Properties dialog box. Any Terminal Services client--including the Web browser-based Terminal Services Advanced Client (TSAC)--can remotely control a Whistler desktop, provided it has the correct permissions. And this release (finally!) adds support for 15- and 16-bit color; Windows 2000 TS was limited to 256 colors only.

One Remote Desktop feature that Whistler Personal does include, in fact, is the new Terminal Services client, which has, of course, been renamed Remote Desktop Connection (RDC). With RDC, any Whistler machine can remotely control any Whistler, Windows 2000 Terminal Services, or Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server machine. RDC is available in the Professional and Server editions as well (Figure).

Hidden features in the Whistler Preview
As mentioned above, Neptune, the predecessor to Whistler, was to have ushered in a new age of DHTML-based user interfaces. This work is actually continuing in Whistler, though it's hidden in the Preview release. There are two components to this: An Active Destkop-based Start Page (Figure) and a replacement for the Start menu called the Start Panel (Figure). The Start Panel, which will be configurable from the Start and Taskbar Properties dialog in Whistler, is hidden in the Whistler Preview that was given to testers last week, but it can be easily enabled and used in place of the standard Start menu if desired. The Start Page consolidates often-accessed programs, documents, and other files into an attractive desktop backdrop.

In the Whistler Preview, the hidden Start Panel is approximately twice as wide as the Start menu and features two columns of options with "Log Off" and "Turn off computer" choices at the top. The first column features large icons for Internet Explorer and the configured email application, followed by a list of the most recently accessed applications. A "More Programs" option opens a standard Start menu. In the second column, called "My Places," Microsoft has created links for common system locations and utilities. The first section includes My Documents, My Pictures, and My Music, while the second one contains My Computer, My Network Places, and Network and Dial-up Connections. At the bottom of the second column are Control Panel, Help + Support, Search, and Run. The Active Desktop Start Page includes similar options, with prominent buttons for the Internet, Email, and Search. A toolbar along the bottom provides options for logging off, turning off the computer, and frequently-accessed locations on the system.

Whistler Advanced Server build 2250
In addition to the Whistler Preview (build 2250), Microsoft has also released a slightly older version of Whistler Advanced Server (AS), build 2239, to testers. This build predates the introduction of Visual Styles, though one might question the inclusion of such a feature in Server anyway. So visually, AS 2239 isn't much different from Windows 2000 AS.

One of the more obvious changes in this build is a new Configure Your Server Wizard (Figure), which appears when you first boot up AS. As in Windows 2000, this utility provides a simple way to "target" the server for specific goals. For example, you might want it to be a Web server, or a new "Application Server," which takes on whole new levels of functionality in this release. But the Configure Your Server Wizard in AS 2239 is very different from the one in Windows 2000 and it takes into account the notion that you might want a server to perform two or more tasks and not be a single-purpose machine. So you can easily set up a Whistler server to provide Web services, print services, and Terminal Services, perhaps. This was, of course, possible in Windows 2000 as well, but now you can do it with a simple wizard.

Also new in AS 2239 is the Administrative Tools Home Page (Figure), a Web application that runs each time you boot the machine, after its configured with Configure Your Server. The Administrative Tools Home Page takes a page, if you will, from the Neptune playbook: Neptune was to offer users with a "Start Page" that would offer a list of common tasks, and there's evidence that this feature will find its way into Whistler as well. For Whistler Server, it looks like the Administrative Tools Home Page will play this role, and this endlessly-optioned application does indeed provide one-stop shopping for most administrative tasks. Whether administrators will warm to this style of management tool remains to be seen, but each of the options in Administrative Tools Home Page simply launches the familiar tools we all love to loathe.

Another feature that's been exposed in AS 2239 is COM+ Partitioning (Figure), which I discuss in my overview of COM+ 2.0 (see Tech Showcase). The COM+ Component Services admin console provides a graphical way to administer COM+ partitions.

Beyond that, there isn't much to say, though I'm sure there's functionality in there that I haven't yet seen. Admittedly, I didn't spend as much time with AS 2239 as I did with the Whistler Preview.

Conclusion
Despite some reservations, I'm very excited about the Whistler Preview. First of all, this release builds on the phenomenal base of Windows 2000, which is clearly the most elegant operating system that Microsoft has ever released. And yes, Whistler is incorporating many of the changes that customers have requested since Windows 2000 became generally available in early 2000. But Whistler is exciting because it finally realizes the dream of Windows, where one operating system core forms the basis of an entire product line, from the consumer desktop up to the most scalable servers on the planet. And Microsoft has finally freed the shackles of the Windows user interface, offering users a chance to truly customize their systems without resorting to third party tools that had to make assumptions and guesses about the underlying display.

Tellingly, the people I've talked to at Microsoft are very excited about Whistler, in a way they never were about Windows 2000. I got the sense that Windows 2000 engendered a sense of pride at Microsoft, of course, though it wasn't an exciting product per se, but rather one that had to make compromises to stay on its business-oriented path. Microsoft describes Whistler as "no compromises," and I think that's a valid claim, as it seems that most of the small issues one might have had with Windows 2000 are being addressed. Consumers have been begging for the stability and reliability of Windows 2000, without the compatibility headaches, and this release will give them that. For Windows 2000 Professional users, the interface improvements and Remote Desktop feature are huge wins. And for the server editions, Whistler will further simplify administration and management, once again raising the ease-of-use bar further beyond the grip of Linux/UNIX systems.

Of course, Whistler is still very early in its development cycle, as the company recently delayed the release of the OS until Q3 2001 at the earliest. But that just means that Whistler is going to get better, something I'm very interested to see. But in the meantime, we've got the Whistler Preview to consider, and when one compares it to early builds of Windows 2000, it's easy to see how much further ahead Whistler is at this point in time. Can Microsoft release such a tremendous update to Windows 2000 in only 18 months? We'll soon find out.