Windows 7 finally catching Ubuntu?

There’s been a lot of talk since Microsoft’s PDC about what to expect from Windows 7. It’s due out in late 2009 or 2010, but MS gave a taste of what’s to come at their PDC. Gina Trapani over at Lifehacker posted a good list of the new features they’re working on for Windows 7. Usama and I have talked a little bit about some of the new stuff since he’s very excited about the next product out of Redmond. I’m not trying to be cynical, but as I read through the list of their “latest and greatest” improvements for Windows, I kept thinking to myself, “Sounds like they’re playing catch-up with Ubuntu and Linux.”

10. Ding-dong, the Sidebar is dead.
Windows is losing Vista’s “sidebar” in favor of a desktop-wide “Gadgets“. Doesn’t this sound strikingly similar to Screenlets? I mean there’s no optional hidden “widget layer” in Aero, but at least they’re trying.

9. Calculator, WordPad, and Paint got overhauled.
They stripped out “useless” built-in programs like a photo gallery, movie maker, and calendar. I guess if you can’t make worthwhile programs, you should probably just quit trying. Oh, but they added “useful” features to the Calculator and added their famous “Ribbon” view to many of their built-in programs. Many people love this “Ribbon” view that debuted in Office 2007, which explains its further incorporation into Windows programs. I can’t say much about it because I haven’t used it. Maybe it’s great. I just don’t think many average users appreciate them trimming down their built-in software when adding interesting new features.

8. Windows 7 will run longer on your notebook’s battery power.
Improved battery life. Apparently Windows 7 is making it easier to control the power usage for your laptop. Hmm, I bet something like powertop would really help you pinpoint what’s eating your power. Of course, if Windows was fully customizable, I’d be able to do things like disable my dvd drive, bluetooth, USB ports, and PCMCIA port whenever I’m on battery like I do in Linux.

7. You can switch between Wi-Fi networks in one click from the system tray.
Clicking on the “wireless icon” brings up a list of available wireless networks. Wow, I can’t believe they didn’t already have something like this. This has been available in every version of Ubuntu I’ve used, and now with NetworkManager 0.7 they’ve even added things like Mobile Broadband and VPN connections to the “wireless icon.” Maybe Windows will get there some day. While we’re on the subject of networking, shouldn’t you have proper Zero-Configuration Networking for all types of devices like Linux has with Avahi and Apple has with Bonjour?

6. You can decide what you do and don’t want to see in the system tray.
This one cracks me up. When I first read it, I thought, “Well that’s not such a bad idea.” Of course, I’m able to customize panels in Gnome and tell it what stuff I want on there and where I want it. Yet, if I’ve got the “Notification Area” applet displayed on my Gnome Panel, I can’t pick and choose what programs I want it to display. I don’t ever normally have more than 3 or 4 things on there at once. Then I started wondering why I’d want to hide the 2 programs I currently have running that show up in the Notification Area. Isn’t that its whole purpose? That’s when I remembered the Windows system tray and all the crap-tastic applications that put icons in there that you can’t get rid of, and this all seemed much more reasonable. I guess I just got used to programs that actually gave me an option on whether I’d like an icon in my tray (like gnome-do) and an OS that let me easily customize what applications start when I boot into my system. Of course, there’s also no need to have 50 different icons telling me I have updates for my PDF viewer, printer, and antivirus. I just get the 1 icon from Update Manager telling me that all these things need to be upgraded. But the real kicker here is that Windows isn’t actually disabling these programs from running. It’s just hiding them. That sounds like a great way to fool people into clogging up system resources with a bunch of applications running in the background so they never see them.

5. You get more control of User Account Control.
Let’s admit the UAC was just a really bad implementation of sudo/gksudo that incessantly nagged people trying to do even some simple tasks. Well it looks like Windows 7 has “fixed” that issue. Of course, instead of implementing a proper sudo knock-off and opting to make users understand the importance security, they let you customize how much UAC nags you. Many people will say, “Don’t ever bug me” instead of giving proper credence to the warnings. It doesn’t matter how many security features you add if people just disable them all.

4. Libraries group similar content; Homegroups to make sharing libraries easier.
I see now that Windows has given some thought to networking. If I’m understanding “Libraries” correctly, they will be able to dynamically scan multiple folders for certain types of files (like music), which can then be shared on a network. I’m not able to tell whether this dynamic scanning would have to be manually set up (I would assume) or if it would automatically scan your entire User directory for music files. That’s actually a pretty good idea (assuming it’s manually configured). Of course, none of that does you any good if you can’t easily connect to other computers on your network, which is where Windows drop the ball. Instead of implementing a proper Zero Configuration Network utility, it looks like “Homegroups” replaces the useless “Workgroups” with “Zero Config Windows 7 only networking.” So that sucks if you have other devices, Mac or Linux systems, a network printer, or even an “old school” Vista computer on your network. Networking will still be a pain in the ass. I guess you’d better be ready to shell out some cash to upgrade everything you own to Windows 7 so your networking works better.

3. You can instantly snap your windows to size, and clear the desktop in one motion.
This one kind of leaves me at a loss. Clear the desktop by shaking a window? So does that mean that every time I start moving a Window around, Windows will think I’m “shaking” and minimize everything? Sounds great… Why not just implement something like Compiz’s ADD Helper, where I can press Win+p to activate it? That way I don’t have to worry that every time I move my window I’m going to minimize everything behind it. Then, there’s the “instantly snap your windows to size” feature. It’s actually not a bad idea if you’ve got a big enough screen where having multiple tiled windows open at the same time might be beneficial. I don’t think I’d use this feature much on my laptop, but if I ever get that 24″ HD monitor I’ve been after, maybe this would come in handy. I’d also worry that someone just meaning to drag a window would accidentally have it’s size and position changed without meaning too. Talk about something to confuse novice users. With more and more users on laptops whose screen sizes are shrinking, I wonder how much use it will get. I think a much better idea would be to implement multiple virtual workspaces, but I’ll touch on that more in a minute.

2. Windows 7 starts up faster.
Whoa, faster boot time? Sounds an awful lot like what I’m going to be getting in 6 months. “Let’s see if we can make booting or resuming Ubuntu blindingly quick.” And as a recent proof of concept demonstrates, I think Linux will be winning the “boot time” battle in a few months.

1. You can do MUCH more from the Windows 7 taskbar.
We finally come to the Windows 7 topic of the week: a reworked taskbar. This definitely has been the hottest topic in news about Windows 7. There are at least 2 big features under this heading. First, they’ve made the task bar much more “Dock-like” by combining the quicklaunch icons with a traditional window list. It’s obvious that Windows needs a feature to compete with the Mac OS X Dock, which is beautifully emulated in Avant Window Navigator for Linux. It’s also obvious that they want something of their own, not just a Dock for Windows. The new task bar shows “live previews” of windows, like can be achieved with Compiz and even using Aero with Vista. One nice feature is that you can close windows using the live preview. It’s also interesting that when having multiple windows open for the same application, they get condensed down into one icon that has multiple “live previews” when you hover over it. Both of those seem like worthwhile ideas.

The second big feature is called Peek. Basically whenever you hover the mouse over an application in the new task bar, all other windows will turn temporarily transparent. It’s meant to be non-interactive, just if you need to glance at another window. There is also a built-in Desktop button so that you can peek at the desktop with all your Gadgets on it. This also seems like an interesting feature. I’m not convinced it could replace the quickness of Alt+Tab for me, but for the point-and-click crowd, this could be a time-saver.

It looks like the new Windows 7 task bar is adding some interesting new features to the Windows desktop. My question is, “Is it enough for Windows to save face?” They’re working on making more efficient use of desktop space. Linux and Mac OS X are already doing an OK job of that with their Dock applications, but they’re also giving the option to have multiple virtual desktops for people who want to separate their applications. On my Ubuntu installation, I can have up to 32 virtual desktops. Of course, I normally have only have 4. This makes it easy for me to keep a word processor open on one desktop and my instant messaging client and web browser open on another.

If it makes the Windows fans happy, though, I’ll give them that the new taskbar design in Windows 7 has some potential to be a good new feature. The rest of its new features still make me feel like the folks at Microsoft are trying to catch up with some of the innovation taking place in Linux and Mac OS. With the rapid progression of Linux in the past 2 years, how will the comparison look when Window 7 is released (theoretically) in late 2009? By that point, Gnome should be well on its way to the transition to version 3.0. That will mean a significant change to the user experience by attempting to rework the idea of the desktop, including making the desktop more task-based and less application-specific. For example, imagine having desktop-wide “contacts” that you could email, instant message, chat via video, follow on RSS feeds, and more. With that information built into the desktop, it wouldn’t matter what application you used for a feed reader or email client. Plus, there are other ideas floating around, like Long Term Vision. With the amount of development and innovation going on with Linux, Gnome, and Ubuntu combined with an aggressive 6 month release schedule, I think it’s going to be hard for Windows to keep up!

6 thoughts on “Windows 7 finally catching Ubuntu?

  1. So some people have run tests using the betas of Windows 7 (and even doing that is questionable because of the beta nature) but what they found was that Windows 7 is worse or no better than Vista in performance and battery life. I’m not sure if the beta installed was before or after all these ‘features’ Windows 7 (Milestone 3 was used) has including faster boot time, ability to run on low-power hardware and etc, but just thought that should be added here. I haven’t read it all yet but it’s here for both our convenience.

    I’m never going to say Windows > Linux, I think having Linux around is important (like having Apple around) for fostering innovation and whatnot. But I also think many people don’t want to invest as much time into their computers to be able to do the amazing things Linux let’s one do, much less manage them, and Windows and OS X are for those very people.

  2. I am really waiting for Windows to get multiple desktops. By the way, if you go into Compiz Config Settings Manager -> General Options and set Horizontal Virtual Size to 32 and Vertical Virtual Size to 32, you get a grand total of 1024 desktops.

    Granted, no one is ever going to use that much desktop real estate, but it’s a cool show of Linux’s power. (Expo looks really cool set up like this)

  3. for the record number 3 thing-

    ( You can instantly snap your windows to size, and clear the desktop in one motion.)

    is pretty great. favorite feature about windows 7. not that thats a good thing…but the rest of windows 7 aside, the window snapping is cool.

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