Moving along in our tour of Windows 7, we come to some of the applications and features that you'll access day-to-day. Once you move past the user interface of the system itself, these are the things that will most directly impact your Windows 7 experience.

Applications

"With Windows Vista, the ecosystem wasn't as ready as we would have liked," Microsoft senior vice president Steven Sinofsky told me in a recent briefing. "Drivers weren't there and application compatibility was not there. There was a feeling among users that it wasn't ready."

That isn't going to happen with Windows 7, Sinofsky said, noting that his decision to architect the new OS using the compatibility model from Windows Vista would bring big dividends. "We don't have to break everything to have a big change," he said. "The investments we made in Windows Vista all come forward in Windows 7. If it works on Vista, it works on Windows 7."

For end users, application compatibility issues are addressed in much the same way as they are in Vista, but with one huge functional addition. If an application refuses to install or run, the Program Compatibility Troubleshooter can generally fix things automatically, as in Vista. But a crucial new tool called the Problem Steps Recorder can be used in businesses to visually demonstrate what went wrong when applications don't behave as expected; administrators and other technical users can then implement fixes, generally without having to physically visit the problem PC, which may be at a remote location.

Digital media applications

Windows 7 continues the digital media trends Microsoft established in the previous two Windows versions, offering up new takes on Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. Some--myself included--have called on Microsoft to abandon WMP and replace it with the more capable and interesting Zune software. But I have to be honest, Windows Media Player 12 is pretty cool.

The most welcome change this time around is format compatibility: WMP 12 now plays AAC audio in addition to MP3 and WMA, and it plays MPEG-4, H.264, and XviD/DivX in addition to AVI and WMV video. DVD playback has been enhanced as well: When you pop-in a movie, WMP goes fullscreen and begins playing the movie automatically.

From a usability perspective, WMP 12 picks up a new lightweight playback mode that puts the content front and center. So when you're watching a movie, the movie takes up the entire window, with the controls overlaid on top, a nice effect. WMP 12 also integrates with the Enhanced Taskbar in Windows 7, offering an interactive pop-up tile when you mouse-over the WMP Taskbar icon. And when you right-click that icon, a highly customized Jump List appears with media-specific tasks.

WMP 12 also integrates with the Windows 7 HomeGroup feature and offers a new media streaming capability so you can stream media from other PCs in your HomeGroup as easily as you can playback content on the local PC.

Finally, WMP 12 include a demo-rific new feature called Play To that lets the player control network-connected media devices. All this requires is a device that supports the industry standard DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) 1.5 digital media renderer. (It also works with other Windows 7 PCs.) The possibilities here are quite exciting. You could "play to" other devices around your home, say during a party. And you can combine media streaming with Play To, controlling a connected media receiver while streaming content to it from another Windows 7 PC on the home network. I hope to spend some time experimenting with this feature soon.

When Windows Media Center was made available via a special XP Media Center Edition of Windows, Microsoft updated it every year. And then in Windows Vista, Microsoft decided to make it more broadly available, which was a great decision. Sadly, the yearly updates stopped. We've now gone two full years since we've gotten a truly interesting Media Center update, and if I understand the schedule, it will be three years between Vista and Windows 7, which is when we'll see the next Media Center upgrade.

It will be worth the wait. The Windows 7 version of Media Center features a nice streamlined interface, is better integrated with Internet-based content--which Microsoft sees as the less complicated alternative to the nuisances surrounding cable-, satellite-, and over-the-air (OTA)-based television recording. So this time around, the Internet TV functionality is up front and center.

Media Center also integrates with the Windows HomeGroup feature, making for seamless sharing of recorded TV libraries, in addition to other media types.

Security applications and features

Microsoft's decision to implement User Account Control (UAC) in Windows Vista has been a huge win for application compatibility and security, but its proven un unpopular feature with users. (Which is odd, because it works well and actually becomes less annoying over time.) In Windows 7, UAC is being demonstrably detuned, so that by default you will rarely see a UAC consent dialog. (On my test laptop with the M3 build installed, I think I've only seen one UAC prompt so far; they're pretty rare.) But you can now also configure UAC in a fairly granular manner.

Windows Defender gets a big overhaul in Windows 7, and not all of it is good news: The program is now more tightly integrated with the Action Center (the successor to the Security Center from Vista), which makes sense. But the excellent secret Software Explorer feature has been removed. Presumably, Microsoft would like people to pay for an annual OneCare Live subscription instead. (OneCare included an improved version of Defender's Software Explorer feaure.)

Speaking of Action Center, this wonderful bit of UI deserves some mention. Called the Windows Solution Center in previous builds, the Action Center replaces Windows Security Center but provides additional useful functionality as well. So in addition to monitoring the security state of your PC, Action Center also monitors PC maintenance. And unlike Security Center, Action Center isn't annoying, and doesn't pop-up unwanted balloon windows all the time. Instead, it uses a new messages system where you can choose to evaluate notifications on your own schedule.

Action Center aggregates notifications from several separate applications on your Windows 7 PC, including Security Center, Problem Reports and Solutions, Windows Defender, Windows Update, Network Access Protection, Backup and Restore, User Account Control, and more. So instead of a bunch of different parts of the system trying to alert you in their own unique ways, messages will all come from the same place, and be made available via the new Action Center tray icon (the one that resembles a lighthouse).

Scenic Ribbon applications

When Microsoft revealed that it was bringing the team responsible for the Office 2007 Ribbon user interface into the Windows team, rumors of a Ribbon-based Windows Explorer UI quickly hit the Net. Fortunately, this wasn't to be. Instead, Microsoft has implemented a new version of the Ribbon toolbar, called the Scenic Ribbon, and implemented it in just two Windows 7 applications, Paint and WordPad. (The Scenic Ribbon will also be used in the forthcoming Office 14 productivity suite, by the way.)

My take on the Scenic Ribbon is that Microsoft is essentially using it in Paint and WordPad as proof of concepts in the hope that they will inspire and influence third party developers. Yes, the Windows 7 version of Paint is actually quite useful, and far more powerful than previous Paint versions. (And for whatever it's worth, I use Paint every single day. Yes, seriously.) But WordPad is a sad joke, and I can't think of a single reason for this application to be included with Windows. It's absolutely pointless.

Other bundled applications

As was widely reported in the weeks leading up to the PDC, the Windows Calculator application has been substantially updated in Windows 7 with a new look and new features like calculation history, unit conversion, calculation templates, date calculations, and a touch-friendly UI. Big deal, says I.

The Sticky Notes application no longer resembles a weird mix of the Office and Windows XP UIs and supports ink and text input. Again, no big deal.

While Microsoft's decision to continue promoting its XPS (XML Paper Specification) document format is dubious at best, Windows 7 gets a proper XPS View application instead of the doesn't-actually-work-properly implemented in Windows Vista (IE 7). Again, it's hard to get excited about this one.

Internet

Microsoft has been bundling Internet functionality in Windows since Internet Explorer 1.0 made its inauspicious debut in Windows 95. This trend continues with Windows 7, though some Internet stalwarts are being debundled and distributed online so they can be updated more frequently.

Internet Explorer 8

The most important Internet-related application in Windows 7 is, of course, Internet Explorer 8. Currently available as a Beta 2 version for Windows XP and Vista users, Internet Explorer 8 doesn't offer any Windows 7-specific features that I'm aware of. So check out my numerous pre-release articles about IE 8 on my Live Services activity center for more info.

Windows Live Wave 3

A lot has been made of Microsoft's do-more-with-less decision to strip out certain bundled applications from Windows and deliver them instead via the optional and free Windows Live Essentials application suite. Don't fool yourself into believing that this was done to make Windows 7 "smaller," "cleaner," or any other similar bit of nonsense. Yes, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Movie Maker, Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger all used to be delivered with Windows. But Windows only ships every 2 to 3 years, and these are the types of applications that need to be updated more frequently. With Windows Live, Microsoft can update these applications as needed--every year usually--much more often than would be possible if they were artificially tied to the OS.

I've already written a lot about Windows Live Essentials (see my preview), but I would like to also note here that Microsoft is working on the services half of Windows Live Wave 3 as well, and you're going to see some new additions to the company's online repertoire soon. These include:

Windows Live Photos, a new services for storing and sharing photos on the Web.

Windows Live Profile, a Facebook-like solution for communicating your status and key personal information to people in your contacts list.

Windows Live People, the new Live-wide contacts store.

Windows Live Groups, a service that provides tools for clubs, teams, families, and other groups that wish to connect, communicate, and share online.

In addition to these new services, Microsoft will be significantly updated existing Windows Live services during the Wave 3 timeframe, including Windows Live Spaces (which will pick up more social networking functionality), Windows Live Home, Windows Live SkyDrive, Windows Live Calendar, Windows Live Events, and Windows Live Hotmail.

Devices

When Windows Vista debuted two years ago, the device compatibility picture was somewhat mixed. The resulting criticism was predictable, but somewhat unfair. After all, Windows Vista appeared in a world in which there were dramatically more devices available that could connect to PCs and home networks, and third party developers weren't exactly ready with drivers. Now, of course, the picture is dramatically brighter, and there are no broad categories of devices that are incompatible in any way with Windows Vista.

As has been widely reported, Windows 7 will utilize the underlying compatibility models from Windows Vista, but considering its anticipated 2009-2010 release date, that should be seen as a positive. So even though there will be over 4 million Plug and Play (PnP) devices by 2010, Windows 7 will be far better equipped to deal with compatibility issues. This time around, devices makers know what to expect and all they have to do to be ready is make sure they work with Windows Vista. Problem solved.

Devices and Printers

The process of connecting a device to a PC and then hoping and praying that it just works can be harrowing, and it's possibly even more annoying when it does work but Vista feels the need to pop-up a balloon window announcing its success.

In Windows 7, Microsoft is formalizing the way in which devices connect to the PC, providing a useful UI called Devices and Printers that gives users a standard and consistent way to interface with peripherals. Devices and Printers doesn't replace Device Manager per se--that complex UI is still available from the usual secret locations. Instead, it provides a friendlier UI for much of the same functionality. Your devices are displayed using photographic representations, and it's easy to access device specific tasks, like customizing the mouse or setting up disk storage allotments on a portable digital music player.

Device Stage

In Windows Vista, there's a weird little application called Sync Center that seems somewhat superfluous since users generally access friendlier front-ends like Windows Media Player or Windows Mobile Device Center to sync content between a PC and device. (Sync Center is also used for Offline Files.) Sync Center was probably well-intentioned. But it's sort of pointless in Vista. And it's being replaced.

For a growing collection of very popular and super-capable device types like digital cameras, cell phones, portable media players, and multifunction printers, Windows 7 also provides an impressive UI called Device Stage. Long-time Windows fans will immediately recognize this IU as being very Longhorn-like, but that's likely more coincidental than anything.

What Device Stage is all about is devices that offer a range of services and functions. For example, most mice are, well, mice. They operate as mice and don't do much else. But a multi-function printer can offer all kinds of services. And in addition to printing, faxing, and scanning, there are ancillary services around the device for purchasing toner and ink, printing to service centers, and the like. These devices are useful but complex, and every one of them comes with its own custom software.

If Device Stage works as intended, those days will soon be over. Device Stage lets you access multi-function devices from a single, consistent user interface and interact with all of its functionality, services, and other manufacturer-instituted features. Instead of several different custom UIs, you could access all of this functionality from a single place.

I don't want to get too far into Device Stage at this point because it's not present in the M3 build. But it's an exciting development and one that I think will prove to be one of Windows 7's best features if it's implemented as presented.

Other device improvements

Windows 7 includes a number of other device-related improvements. It natively supports writing to Blu-Ray optical discs, so you will be able to use this disc type, alongside CD- and DVD-type recordable media, for backup and sharing purposes. Windows 7 will be network aware, and will thus automatically print to different default printers at home and work, respectively. No more accidentally firing off the kid's school project to your work printer.

A new Sensors platform allows Windows 7 to interact with a coming generation of devices, such as GPS hardware and related location devices, home automation controls, light sensors, temperature gauges, and the like. It's hard to say how many users will take advantage of such features, but the location stuff could be interesting.

Windows 7 also supports a number of leading edge device technologies such as Bluetooth 2.1, and Ultra Wideband (UWB) and Wireless USB (WUSB).

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