Whether it was in previewing Windows Vista or the next version of the Office suite, or in unveiling new design and development tools, the theme running through this month’s Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles was improving the user experience.
It’s going to be a busy year for Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash.-based software company will release its Visual Studio 2005 line of developer tools in November and version 7 of its Internet Explorer browser in early 2006. Due in the latter half of 2006 are a new version of the Office suite, currently called Office 12, and the long-awaited Windows Longhorn OS, now branded Windows Vista.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and other executives demonstrated the products for PDC attendees, giving the public its first peak at Office 12. All the products aim to harness improving graphics hardware to make for a more visually appealing and intuitive user experience. “This is the most significant release of Microsoft Office since Office 95,” said Gates.
Microsoft has often pointed to user surveys showing that most features users want are already present in Office, they just don’t know they are there. To rectify that, the user interface has been radically overhauled to be 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 icons to the taskbar. This is designed to make it easier for end users to find the tool they’re looking for.
The new user interface continues in Vista, where virtual folders will replace the hierarchal system used today, and a wealth of metadata will help get users the data they’re looking for quickly. Instead of file icons, thumbnail views will give a peek at the file before it is opened.
Elliot Katz, senior product manager, Windows client for Microsoft Canada, said beyond the visual appeal to end users, Vista’s security features will particularly please IT managers.
“Vista enables, at a very high level, a new level of confidence in what you can do with your PC and how secure it is,” said Katz.
“User account protection isn’t one of the really flashy parts of Vista, but it’s one of the really important ones.”
Today most users run in administrator mode by default, opening the network up to a range of security issues. Katz said Vista automatically defaults to standard mode, and a dialogue box will pop up, requiring administrator input before a user can be promoted to administrator level.
Katz added that virtualization will allow legacy applications designed to run in admin mode to run in standard mode, helping to keep the network more secure.
Microsoft also announced Windows Workflow Foundation, which will allow developers to develop workflow-enabled tools for Office 12, BizTalk Server and Microsoft Dynamics.
David Senf, manager of software research at research group IDC Canada in Toronto, said the new functionalities around Windows Vista and Office will help make technology more accessible to the end user, and the business value more clear to executives.
“(Executives) don’t care about technology, (they) care about how to make money from technology,” said Senf. “I think what we’ve seen (at PDC) elevates technology closer to the end-user experience in one respect, and at the same time makes it easier for the technology to be developed for the end user.”
While there is healthy competition in the marketplace, Senf said Microsoft’s biggest competition is probably itself and the large existing install base of Windows XP and Windows 2000, and to some extent still Windows 98.
“To address this, Microsoft is allowing for WinFX and Windows Presentation Foundation to come down to Windows XP, such that when [independent software vendors] build out applications they can be consumed by that massive install base Microsoft has,” said Senf.