As of this writing, two early alpha builds of Windows "Whistler" 2001 have made their way surreptitiously out of Microsoft, builds 2211 and 2223.1, and each demonstrates the progress that the company has already made simplifying the Windows experience. Even though Windows 2000 was released just a few short months ago, Microsoft is pressing ahead with the next version, which will be a point release, not a full-blown upgrade as was Windows 2000. As such, Whistler is not a bare-metal rewrite of Windows 2000, but rather a sometimes-subtle refresh of its predecessor. And at this early stage, there aren't any dramatic changes, not yet.

One area of confusion for Whistler is its focus: Many journalists and Web sites that report on Microsoft issues are assuming that Whistler is only a consumer upgrade that will eventually replace Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows Me"), the Windows 9x product that Microsoft will release this summer. But Whistler is an upgrade for all editions of Windows 2000, not just the desktop edition. As such, there will be server products built on Whistler as well. However, this preview focuses on the desktop version (Professional) as that is the only version that has leaked out of Microsoft thus far.

If you're familiar with Windows Me (see my review of Beta 3) or Windows 2000 Professional (see my review), then Whistler will contain few surprises. Visually, Whistler resembles Windows 2000 with all of the Windows Me user interface changes. But Whistler also throws in a few interface changes of its own, including a borderless taskbar icon feature I've been asking for since the original Windows 98 beta (Microsoft has told me repeatedly that borderless icons were confusing to users they tested; I disagree). Because Whistler is likely to change dramatically over the next few months, this preview will focus on those things that have changed since the release of Windows 2000. So if it's not covered here, you can assume it hasn't changed yet (for example, Setup is identical to that in Windows 2000). Let's take a look.

After installing Whistler, you're presented with the first major change, a new full-screen logon window (Figure), which is clearly based on the one from Neptune, Microsoft's original attempt at a Windows 2000-based consumer operating system (Figure). But unlike the Neptune logon, which allowed you to associate a character graphic with each user (Figure), the logon in Whistler is somewhat broken: The characters are still available (Figure) but there's no way to associate them with users (I expect this feature to be added later). Worse still is the fact that you can't change which user you're going to use to logon from the Whistler logon screen. It just seems to be dysfunctional at this stage.

The Whistler desktop (Figure) is virtually identical to that in Windows 2000, though a "File a bug report" icon and the desktop text offer a hint at the changes to come. But the other icons and the pop-up alternate menu are all identical to that in Windows 2000. There is one graphical glitch on the desktop, however: When you double-click a desktop icon, a window opens, but the desktop remains selected (Figure): This will probably be fixed before Beta 1.

Start menu and Taskbar
Opening the Start menu reveals the first of many changes to the Windows user interface (Figure). The "Shut Down" option in Windows 2000 has been replaced with "Turn Off Computer" while the logoff option has been upgraded to the Start menu itself. And, of course, there's a new Start menu graphic denoting the new OS. Taskbar and Start Menu Properties has changed dramatically, now featuring four tabs, compared to the two in Windows 2000 (Figure). The Taskbar tab replaces General, and sports a couple of new options, "Group Items" and "Enable moving and resizing." The Start tab (Figure) is currently unused and appears only as a placeholder for future changes. Also new is the curious Notifications tab (Figure), which enables "personalized notifications," whatever that is. And the Advanced tab (Figure and Figure) has been significantly updated, with a slew of new settings ("Display Run," "Enable dragging and dropping," etc.) that expand on the options first seen in Windows Me.

But the biggest visual change is with the taskbar, which now sports the borderless taskbar buttons I've been asking for since 1997 (Figure 22). And taskbar icons take advantage of the fade effect that was introduced in Windows 2000, with captions that fade as the right side of the button is approached. It's a subtle, but cool effect.

My Computer/Explorer and Folder Options
When My Computer is first opened, nothing seems out of place, as it presents the same clean, uncluttered view we're used to from Windows 2000. But when a drive is opened, we're presented with the same Explorer "nag screen" that appears in Windows Me (Figure), which presents links to common locations users are attempting to find, such as My Documents, and Add/Remove Programs. Of course, power users will immediately disable this feature, but Microsoft is justified in trying to protect the file system from inexperienced users. Overall, using windows and dialogs in Whistler is very, very similar to Windows 2000 (Figure).

One subtle yet dramatic change involves new view styles in My Computer and Explorer windows. The Small icons view style has been removed (since no one used this option anyway), and Large Icons moves forward simply as Icons. And though List, Details, and Thumbnails are still options, there's a new one called Tiles that, well, tiles the icons and provides a bit more information about the type of folders and files you're seeing (Figure). But there's also a new "Show in Groups" option that will group the icons in My Computer/Explorer in a manner dependent on the view style. For example, if you enable this option and then arrange the icons by name, they will be arranged alphabetically within different groups, one for each letter of the alphabet (Figure). If you arrange them by type, however, you might see groups such as "Application," "Application Extension," and "File Folder" (Figure). It's a bit confusing at first, but not altogether unwelcome.

Some aspects of Folder Options have changed as well. Like its predecessor, the Folder Options dialog sports four tabs, but the View tab has been changed significantly with the addition of new advanced settings (Figure and Figure). You can now determine whether network shares are automatically found and display in My Network Places, whether Control Panel presents a simplified, graphical front-end, whether the My Network Places icon is displayed on the desktop, and a few other options.

System Properties and Remote Desktop Access
System Properties--which is launched from the Control Panel or by right-clicking the My Computer desktop icon and choosing "Properties"--has been augmented by a new "Remote" tab (Figure) that provides a curious user interface for Terminal Services. Once the province of Windows 2000 Server products only, Terminal Services has been added to even the desktop versions in Whistler, under the guise of Remote Desktop Access. This feature essentially allows other users to connect to your machine and access it remotely, running applications and performing any other actions they'd be able to do if they were sitting down at the machine physically. There's no mention of this in Whistler yet, but I suspect this feature was added so that administrators could remotely access users' desktops and troubleshoot without having to leave their desk. It's a great idea, and a welcome addition.

Control Panel
The Whistler Control Panel (Figure) defaults to the same HTML-based front-end used in Windows Me, which shields the user from less commonly needed options. And, of course, you can view all Control Panel options if needed: I suspect most people will eventually turn this off, as there are just too many commonly-used options that are hidden by this thing. (And do the majority of users really need Accessibility Options?)

Help and Support
In Windows Me, the online help system was dramatically evolved into an HTML-based application called Help and Support and it appears that Whistler will eventually use it as well. At this early juncture, however, the "Help" option in the Start Menu still launches the old Help application from Windows 2000. But if you go digging around in the file system, sure enough, Help and Support is there (Figure). Curiously, it's a duplicate of the version found in Windows Me, but it runs fine under Whistler and appears to be fully functional. No doubt a future build will integrate this cool feature into the OS, replacing the old Help application once and for all.

My Network Places
The My Network Places window mimics that in Windows Me by automatically providing access to all of the network shares that it can find, without any user intervention (Figure). This could be disastrous in a business-oriented network environment, where hundreds or thousands of shares could easily be present; hopefully, Microsoft will restrict this particular feature to the consumer edition of Whistler.

Internet Explorer
The most current alpha of Whistler includes the same Internet Explorer 5.5 beta that is now publicly available from the Microsoft Web site; it's also the same build included in Windows Me Beta 3. Or is it? The build number says that it's version 5.6... hmmm (Figure).

My Pictures folder and image management
Like Windows Me, Whistler includes some interesting updates to the My Pictures folder, which is elevated to the same level of prominence as My Documents: By default, all image files will now be saved to this folder, and it appears in the Start menu under the Documents entry. My Pictures now includes links for digital cameras and scanners, as well as the ability to view all of the pictures it contains as a screensaver-like slideshow (Figure). Curiously, the default view for this folder no longer provides thumbnails of the images it stores, though the thumbnail view is much nicer now than it was in Windows 2000, with no borders around each icon. The preview pane is provided as usual, however.

One curious change that's also true of Windows Me: Bitmap images are now opened with a new Image Preview application (Figure), rather than Paint.

Looking through this list, it's pretty easy to see that most of the changes in the desktop edition of Whistler concern the user interface, with generally subtle ease-of-use enhancements. I haven't turned up any dramatically structural differences in this release yet and, frankly, I don't expect to: Windows 2000 is a remarkably stable and reliable platform for the future, and it's no surprise that Microsoft's next release would simply build on that base. That's not to say that dramatic changes aren't forthcoming, and I expect they are. But I also expect most of these changes to affect the user experience, and not the core product.

On the other hand, Whistler leaves you hankering for more: It's clear that bigger UI changes are in store, though it's anyone's guess what form these changes will take. And as the first Whistler beta begins--external beta testers will be notified within the next thirty days--there will be more information available. I'll check back on Whistler when there's more to report.