Microsoft PDC: Gates debuts new Vista, friendlier Office interface

The ooo’s and ahh’s reverberated through the Los Angeles Convention Centre Tuesday as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and other executives walked attendees at the company’s Professional Developers Conference (PDC) through the latest build of Windows Vista, and, for the first time publicly, the next version of Microsoft Office codenamed “Office 12.”

Attendees packed the hall for the latest version of the gospel according to Bill, and Gates played to the crowd, beginning with a pep talk for the crowd of software developers, telling them it’s a great time to be a developer.

“This is a period of greatest opportunity for people building software,” said Gates. “It’s the enabler for the great things that are going on.”

He said it’s all about improving the user experience, making it easier for users to find the information they need and be more productive with it.

Microsoft Office 12 is scheduled to ship in the second half of 2006 – the same time frame as Windows Vista (previously called Longhorn). Office 12 was demoed publicly for the first time at PDC.

“This is the most significant release of Microsoft Office,” said Gates. “Office 12 has all the essential ingredients to deliver an incredible productivity boost to millions around the world.”

Microsoft has often pointed to user surveys showing that most features people want are already present in Office, but people just don’t know they are there.

To rectify that, the Redmond, Wa.-based company has radically changed the user interface in Office 12, making it more intuitive.

Usual menu headings such as File and Format remain, but instead of releasing a pull-down menu, clicking on them will bring a new set of graphical icons to the taskbar, to make it easier for users to find the tool they’re looking for. Previewing lets users see what impact their change will have on their document before they make it.

Office 12 will run on Windows XP, but with Office and Vista releasing in the same time period Gates is hoping each will drive adoption of the other as companies jump onboard to get the new features of both products.

The new user interface continues in Vista, where new virtual folders will replace the hierarchal system used today, and a wealth of Meta data will help get users the data they’re looking for quickly. Instead of file icons, thumbnail views will give a peak at the file before it is opened.

“We need to make it easy for people to visualize information that comes from many different locations,” said Gates.

A side taskbar or “sidebar” will sit on the desktop where users will be able to anchor a range of what Microsoft is calling gadgets, such as RSS news feeds or a Windows Media Player controller. The company is also touting the taskbar as an opportunity for third-party application development.

For IT managers, Gates promised Vista will make their lives easier, with improved security and capabilities that will make it easier for IT managers and developers to diagnose and repair common errors.

The preview of Internet Explorer 7 looked very similar to Mozilla’s popular Firefox browser, adding popular features like tabbed browsing and the Search window next to the address window.

Microsoft says it has topped Firefox by making it easier to manage the tabs, letting users click to view thumbs of all open pages. RSS capabilities have also been enhanced, making it easier for Web surfers to fund and subscribe to RSS feeds. And anti-phishing and other security features added.

Microsoft also released several new platform technologies for developers working on the Microsoft platform. Atlas is a Web client framework for building Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX)-style applications with Dynamic HTML that will be integrated with Visual Studio 2005 and ASP.NET 2.0.

The Language Integrated Query (LINQ) Project uses extensions to C# and Visual Basic to give developers integrated querying for objects, databases and XML. As well, Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) Everywhere, a subset of WPF, will allow delivery of content-rich material on different platforms and form factors.

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