Smoke and Mirrors

Apparently Lenovo has put a lot of work in making Windows 7 boot “unbelievably fast.” When you go on to read the article, you see that you’ll get a boot time possibly as “quickly” as 30 seconds, which is a significant improvement for Windows. Of course to explain how they get that, you get a bunch of vague double-speak. They push back loading drivers and various Windows services until after booting “finishes.” They also make some claims about preventing “Windows rot” by doing some work with drivers. Not quite sure what they’re doing there. Sounds like they need to take some tips from the pros: 10 seconds on a mid-level machine to a logged in idle computer without delaying any background services. Your computer is ready to use in 10 seconds. That’s the goal for Ubuntu 10.04, due out in April 2010. Ubuntu 9.10, due out in a few weeks, already has Lenovo’s Windows 7 numbers beat, so 10.04 will just be some sweet icing on the cake. And then of course, there’s reason to believe boot speed will actually be closer to 5 seconds when it’s all said and done… Maybe some day Windows will catch Ubuntu.

Windows 7: Netbook killer

The following is a prediction of things to come in the next year.

I get the feeling that Microsoft is trying to kill the netbook market with Windows 7. In case you haven’t heard, Microsoft announced a new edition of Windows 7: Starter Edition. The Starter Edition is only capable of running 3 applications at once. Their purpose for this “Starter Edition” is two-fold. First, it is meant to be a sufficiently crippled version of Windows 7 so that they can sell it dirt cheap for use in netbooks. Many people will not buy it because it can only run 3 programs at a time. (Update: MS changed their minds on this after significant blacklash from the community, but Starter continues to have other strict limitations) They’ll pay a significant premium to buy a netbook containing a “normal” version of Windows 7 (Basic or Home) because it will be Microsoft’s flagship operating system. That’s different from today’s market. Microsoft can afford to give away Windows XP for dirt cheap on current iterations of netbooks because it’s already really old, and they’re busy trying to sell Vista. Buying a netbook with Windows 7 Basic or Home will increase the total cost so much that the devices will no longer be “worth it” to people unless they really want that small form-factor ultra-ultra-portable.

Second, most of the people silly enough to purchase the Starter Edition will find it so incredibly annoying to use that they will either have to pay to upgrade to a non-crippled version of Windows (again significantly increasing overall cost of the device) or they will discount their netbook as “a toy” of little value. This attempt by Microsoft to upsell the netbook market is probably going to kill it. Any way you slice it, Microsoft-based consumer interest in the market will wane.

Then, of course, we have Linux-based netbooks. By October, Ubuntu 9.10 will be available. It will likely boot on your netbook in 15 seconds or less if it has an SSD. It will come fully featured with an office suite, IM client, email client, web browser, media player, image editor, and much, much more. Oh, and you’ll be able to run every single application at once if you want to. Graphics will be performing fantastically, and the user interface will be strikingly refreshing. And of course you’ll get all of this for the low, low price of $0. Let’s just hope that Canonical can get it installed on a number of prominent netbooks whose manufacturers won’t hide it behind a curtain so that consumers will realize that they’re no longer subject to Microsoft’s crippleware. They can have an extraordinarily functional, free system on any machine they want. Ubuntu needs to capitalize on Microsoft’s idiotic move here, and I think they will.

Now Optimized for Linux Viewing

When I first designed this site, I was using Windows and MS Word full-time. The fonts I chose were Windows-centric. Since I had ubuntu-restricted-extras installed, which includes many Windows fonts, I didn’t notice any differences on Linux. However, after re-installing Ubuntu on my desktop, I decided to steer clear of ubuntu-restricted-extras and just installed Adobe Flash by itself. Therefore, I have recently updated my website to give preference to free Linux fonts if you have them installed. I’m not sure how many of them come standard with OpenOffice.org, but you may only need that installed to see the new fonts. If you’re not a Linux user, you’ll continue getting the same fonts as before. I’m not quite sure what Mac users see. I should look into that… Anyway, they’re not much different, but overall improved. I especially like the comments’ font.

Linux for Clinics

I ran across a new linux distro today that I thought was pretty cool. It’s called Linux for Clinics. It’s an Ubuntu-based linux distribution geared toward running an entire medical office. It utilizes a few project I’ve heard of before, like GNUmed, but this is pushing to be a full-fledged medical clinic OS. Development seems slow, but I’m hopeful that it continues because it could be a strong contender for clinics, especially ones with little funding. One critique I have in the development (which I of course know nothing about) is that they seem to be a vanilla Ubuntu install with a few different/altered packages. I wonder if this might be better accomplished using a Launchpad PPA as opposed to a full re-spin. It seems like this would make upkeep much more efficient between major Ubuntu releases every 6 months. I just don’t know if that’s feasible… If I have more time in the future, I may try to get involved in this.

Breathing Life Into An Old Machine

Sadie’s family has an old Gateway desktop in their basement. Up until last Spring, it was the only computer their family had besides Sadie’s college laptop, which was starting to show its age. The desktop was probably purchased before the turn of the century, and it came with the lovely Windows ME operating system. By most accounts, Windows ME was an incredibly botched product that was introduced after the more stable Windows 98 and before Windows XP (2001).

Despite her uncle having reformatted it and fixed it up a few years ago, the computer was in pretty dire circumstances. When it actually booted successfully, the boot process would take over 2 and a half minutes to get to a working desktop. You’d get a BSOD every time you shut down, and the thing generally ran as slow as molasses.

Her dad had mentioned wanting to learn to type, but he didn’t want to risk messing up their new laptop. I thought this would be a perfect job for their old desktop, but I had trouble deciding how to set things up. Things obviously couldn’t stay in their current state. I could get them a copy of Windows XP to put on it, but the machine only had 128 MB of RAM and either a Pentium II or III processor. This also ruled out putting Ubuntu on it, since I doubt that would run any faster or better than Windows ME or XP. I needed something extraordinarily lightweight. As long as it was capable of the basics, we’d be good to go. I even knew of a decent free Linux typing program, Klavaro Touch Typing Tutor.

I had heard of Puppy Linux at various websites around the Internet. I never knew much about it besides that people often mentioned Puppy as a good, lightweight Linux distro. I decided to investigate further only to find that it was exactly what I was looking for. In fact, it’s so lightweight that you can run it completely from RAM if you have more than 256 MB installed, making things incredibly snappy. I downloaded the latest Puppy Linux iso, and burned a copy. I booted from the CD, and after answering a few questions, I was taken to a nice linux desktop. Once I had assured myself that everything was working correctly, I went ahead and installed Puppy, erasing Windows. Puppy’s install wasn’t quite as user-friendly as Ubuntu’s, but I was able to install it without any problems. Linux novices might prefer a more helpful install process. Luckily, there is a decent online manual that should help with pretty much everything.

The real test came when the installation was finished: boot time. Puppy Linux cold-booted in less than 30 seconds on this machine. That was incredible! The desktop is fully functional. It contains a web browser (SeaMonkey), desktop email client (SeaMonkey Mail), word processor (Abiword), spreadsheet editor (Gnumeric), and a lot of other basic applitions pre-installed. They do have a repository for additional applications, but one frustrating thing is that Puppy Linux uses its own package type, the PETget. Using your own package type means that there’s going to be less software available for your system. Fortunately, it looks like there is a compatibility library so that Debian packages can also be installed, which means you can get pretty much any application on Puppy. I was lucky enough to come across someone who had made a PETget for Klavaro, so installing that was a piece of cake.

Puppy Linux uses the JWM window manager, which I had never used before. It’s popular in distros like Puppy because it’s so lightweight and very customizable. I’ll admit that JWM is not much to look at, but it does its job and uses very few resources. The panel along the bottom of the screen has a “(Puppy) Menu” button at the left, a list of windows and virtual desktops in the middle, and a system tray and RAM usage graph on the right. Puppy also comes with many icons on the desktop for popular applications. A nice feature of JWM is that the “Main Menu” (“Puppy Menu”) is actually available from anywhere on the desktop just by right-clicking. One thing that threw me off is that JWM defaults to a single-click destop interface, which was very disorienting for me. I was able to change it to double-click without much trouble.

I will say that the default look of the desktop on Puppy leaves something to be desired. I’m not talking about the window manager either. While it’s nice to have some icons on the desktop, Puppy goes a bit overboard. Plus, some of their descriptions of the applications are not entirely intuitive. Since when is “browse” a good title for your Internet browser icon? There is also a rather stark mountain lake scene as the default wallpaper, which I found terribly distracting.

Puppy Linux 4.1.2 after I fixed it up a bit

Puppy Linux 4.1.2 after I fixed it up a bit

Since Sadie’s dad isn’t exactly comfortable with computers, I wanted to make things as easy to use as possible. I cleared off most of the unnecessary icons and only left ones that he’d possibly use. I also made sure they had proper descriptions, like “Internet.” Even navigating the “Puppy Menu” would probably be too much for him. I really wanted to fix things so he’d be able to do everything right from the desktop icons. After organizing and cleaning up the icons and giving the desktop a new wallpaper, things started to look much better. I even looked up how to write a quick “shutdown script” so that I could put a “Shutdown” icon on the desktop. This actually took the most work of anything because I kept doing it wrong, and it would freeze the computer. All-in-all though, I think it turned out very nice.

This just demonstrates one of the great powers of Linux on the desktop. You can use it on everything, from powerful servers and supercomputers to hardware that’s close to 10 years old. You can use it breathe life back into a machine that you stopped using long ago because it wouldn’t work with the next version of Windows. Plus, it’s free! Do you have an old machine lying around that you could use for something? If it’s somewhat modern hardware, try Ubuntu. It’s the best Linux distro out there. If it’s older hardware, I can now recommend Puppy Linux as long as you’re somewhat familiar with Linux. Either way, why not give Linux a try on it, and let that hardware achieve its full potential!

Proliferation

I was going to get coffee at ABP at school last week, and I overheard a random guy with his laptop in the hospital lobby chatting with the guy sitting next to him and saying that he uses Linux. As I walked past, I glanced over my shoulder to see Ubuntu 8.10 loaded.

Last weekend, Sadie and I were at her aunt and uncle’s house for her Grandma’s birthday. Her uncle is a programmer for a garage door company (I think) in Geneva. I noticed they had a new computer on the counter in their kitchen. When I asked about it, he said it was an old family computer that he had reformatted with Linux. It was Ubuntu.

Ubuntu Review: One Year In

After a somewhat belated New Year’s resolution last year, I did manage to complete my goal much more easily than I previously thought possible. In the last 9 months, I can probably count on my two hands then number of times I’ve booted into Vista or XP. I’ve been using Ubuntu on a regular basis since at least February. Now you may ask why I made the switch to Linux. I intend to answer that by giving a summary, including the ups and downs, of my first year with Linux.

I had heard of Linux in the past, but it always seemed like something that was beyond my ability to comprehend. I had become a huge fan of WordPress and Firefox, and I love the ideals of free software. As I sat there and thought about it, I couldn’t believe that I was still using a proprietary system like Windows when a free operating system like Linux was out there. I did some research on Linux and found Ubuntu to be exactly what I was looking for. It’s self-proclaimed as “Linux for Human Beings.” It’s got the best support for hardware of any Linux distribution and a very welcoming community for newcomers. Since I was a new medical student, the last thing I wanted was something I had to pore over for hours and hours in the command line just to use it.

Ubuntu is everything a person could want being new to Linux. You can download it for free and burn it to CD to install it. It’s a LiveCD, so you can run the entire operating system from the CD to test it out without changing anything on your current system. Just restart your computer with the CD in your CD-ROM drive, and you will boot into Ubuntu. In order to install it, you just run through the installer on the LiveCD, which asks a few fairly easy questions, and after installing for about 45 minutes, you’ll be booting into Ubuntu. If you’re not ready to completely ditch your current system just yet, you can shrink your installation of Windows. If you’d rather not mess with Windows at all (just in case you don’t like Linux), you can install Ubuntu just like a program right inside of Windows using the wubi installer. Using the wubi installer is a great idea for someone who just wants to try Linux, since it is a little bit tougher to uninstall Linux after installing via the LiveCD, which changes the partitions on your computer.

My first few weeks with Ubuntu were great. I couldn’t believe how much this free operating system could do. Nearly any type of application you could think of was either built-in or easily installed right from inside Ubuntu. It came with Firefox, the OpenOffice.org office suite, Evolution Email, Pidgin (for multi-protocol instant messaging), and the GIMP Image editor. Plus the “eye candy” was easily enabled to check out Compiz-Fusion’s desktop effects and the Avant Window Navigator, a dock similar to that found in Mac OS X.

My friend Usama and my dad were both interested enough to try it out for themselves. They played with Ubuntu for a few weeks, but neither of them took to using it full-time. They’re both “power users” on Windows, and getting used to new applications and setting up a completely different type of system might have been too much trouble for them. I don’t think either of them have given up on it completely, but I think they probably needed a little bit of direction in setting things up effectively. I couldn’t see what the problem was since I had very little trouble with my hardware and I didn’t have any pressing software needs. One of the things that helped ease my transition to Ubuntu was that I forced myself to use the system every day and only boot into Windows if I couldn’t do something in Ubuntu that I absolutely needed to. I quickly realized that there was almost nothing that I couldn’t do in Ubuntu. My new webcam worked after an upgrade to Ubuntu 8.04 (the Hardy Heron) and Amazon MP3 released a Linux client so I could buy full DRM-free mp3 albums.

With the release of Ubuntu 8.04 (the Hardy Heron), GNU/Linux seemed better than ever to me. I began to wonder how there could be so few people using it. I mean, sure it’s not for everyone (notably computer gamers, since few computer games were released on Linux). Around this time, I heard about the Linux Hater’s blog, which was causing somewhat of a ruckus in the Linux community. This is mainly because his rants, though crude, were strikingly poignant. He obviously had an in-depth knowledge of the various Linux communities and software, and he loved to point out their flaws. After a few months, he threw in the towel, but not before opening my eyes to some of the shortcomings of GNU/Linux. I think reading this blog was important for me. Although it often depressed me, it helped me see where Linux is strong and where it needs improvement. I knew all the software wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was just a matter of time before this was fixed. The blog helped me see some of the discordance and problems in the communities themselves that are, in some instances, preventing their own success. Yet as I continue to read about the progress that’s being made in all of these areas, I am hopeful that this problems will solve themselves. There are a lot of developers doing great work who understand the problems, and with the rise of netbooks more companies are contributing resources and manpower to solve some of these issues.

With the release of Ubuntu 8.10 (the Intrepid Ibex), some of Ubuntu’s warts began to show. My webcam no longer worked. One of my favorite new productivity applications, Gnome-Do, started showing some significant bugs that make it unusable at times. My wireless card, which was already a little bit buggy, started causing some more issues. My desktop’s CD/DVD-ROM drives no longer functioned correctly. All-in-all the release brought some great new features, but broke some of my confidence in Ubuntu’s stability. Some of these issues have been resolved and some have not. Some of these issues are specific to Ubuntu and some are not. My problem was that these issues were known prior to release time. I know releases can’t be held up for just anything, but when all CD/DVD drives fail to function properly, it seems like a show-stopper. Unfortunately, Canonical seems to value their time-based release schedule a bit too highly over quality, which is really, really going to hurt them in getting people to try and stick with Linux. I would much rather have had them do what Automattic did with WordPress 2.7 and delay the release date for a month so that all the bugs could be ironed out.

Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m growing weary of Linux. Despite some flaws, I’m confident that things will be resolved in future releases, and I have no intention of giving up on an operating system that I love using. It’s just that flaws like these (along with some usability issues and a lack of centralized documentation) make me understand why adopting Linux might be harder than I first envisioned. I do hope that some of the higher-ups understand these issues, since it’s a major barrier to adoption. Ubuntu tends to do a better job at handling these sorts of issues, but as they continue to push for more users, I hope they continually readdress how to keep their current users happy while still progressing their system.

One of the things I like best about using GNU/Linux is how much I learn while doing using it. I’ve learned a lot about security and operating systems in general, and I’ve done it all using free software. I’ve discovered a number of free software applications that I probably never would’ve even heard of. By using free software, I began paying attention to its development to find out about great ideas and features in upcoming versions. I’ve also been keen on helping to test new software and report bugs. I’ve installed both new versions of Ubuntu while they were still in beta to help with bug reporting.

Since one of the cornerstones of Linux is its variety of distributions, or “distros,” I’ve also started using VirtualBox to test some of them in virtual machines inside Ubuntu. One of the things about Linux that really interests me is its versatility to run on a wide variety of hardware and using a variety of software. It’s used to run super-computers at big companies and to resurrect ancient hardware that’s not capable of running any modern version of Windows. Linux can also be used as a “green” operating system both in its own right and through the LTSP. LTSP can be used to connect many low-power, lightweight computers to a single workhorse machine, so an entire computer lab can be run on minimal power. Linux can be used to power your home media center and your cell phone. The versatility of Linux allows it to underlie many great technologies of today and tomorrow.

So how would I summarize my first year with Ubuntu? I think it’s exactly what I needed. It has helped me plan for the future in medicine and my life and better understand some technology along the way. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I do think Ubuntu and Linux is a viable operating system for a majority of users who have never given it a chance. Besides addressing some of the underlying issues in development (as highlighted by The Linux Hater’s blog) and preventing regressions, the Ubuntu community could use a effort to implement or improve a centralized, up-to-date set of documentation for new users. Far too many problems and issues are only addressed in random blog posts or on online forums, both of which tend to be outdated or doing things in an overly complicated manner. Ubuntu would be greatly improved by including some significant “Getting Started” documentation for new adopters and finding a way to point directly toward an up-to-date official wiki with more complicated tasks. The Linux community is continuing to lower the barriers to adoption, and addressing some key usability issues might be just the thing they need to attract the swarms of users leaving Windows and even catch a fed-up Apple user or two. Great strides have been made already and more are planned for the coming months and years. I’m excited to keep participating and to see what’s in store in my free software world. If you’re interested, try out Ubuntu. It’s simple to burn and try. The risks are pretty minimal, and you’ve got a lot to gain. You’ll never have to pay for any computer software again, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll be ensuring the future of your digital life. Just don’t forget that Linux is different and for the most part you should try to enjoy it.

(Also, this is my sort-of convoluted thoughts on Jono Bacon’s meme)

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!