Ten top features in the next generation of Windows for development and productivity

Following Windows 7’s recent beta launch to the public, I’ve taken a look at the new development features and productivity improvements to Microsoft’s flagship product to see what it all means for technology students.

Windows 7 brings in a wide range of changes, and not only to the way the operating system works and how it behaves: there are new and innovative ways to control the computer and how it interacts with the user.  The most exciting of these to develop for will be the brand new multi-touch, manipulation, and inertia APIs. These range from the low-level touch messages and input APIs to the higher-level gesture APIs, allowing developers as much or as little control over the input as they’d like. Programmers can work with rich API commands such as zooming, panning, and rotating the current view on the screen, right down to creating custom gestures with the lower level APIs. The inertia API works with the high-level APIs to allow developers to create unprecedentedly user-friendly, touch-based applications, including elements that can be controlled with touch gestures then “thrown” across the screen.

                Along with the brand-new taskbar and more Start menu changes (more on those later), comes a new way for users to interact with applications, and an exciting way for developers to include new functionality: the Jump Menu. Application designers can add their own items such as tasks (for example, composing an e-mail) and recently opened files or URLs for that application to a default list of recent files, folders and tasks, creating an easy way for users to start working with the application which is accessible from the Start menu, or by right-clicking on the application’s icon.

                Now a feature for the web developers: Windows 7’s new Federated Search creates a method for users to perform a search, from the desktop, on documents beyond the user’s own computer. You can add your search engine, a remote document store or media server, and even custom data sources to the Windows 7 search, without having to deploy client code. Windows 7 also supports the OpenSearch standard, which enables webmasters, simply by adding an RSS or ATOM output, to integrate their search with Windows 7.

                Windows 7 allows developers writing custom file formats to create property handlers which are now implemented by Windows Explorer to show useful information relating to the file being viewed; if you include proper format handlers, search results for your custom file types can be just as rich as those Windows supports natively.

                Along with Windows 7 comes Internet Explorer 8, featuring improved performance, reliability, compatibility, and for developers, new ways for the user to interact with the web. As well as a new “Suggested sites” feature, where users can view sites they may like based on their history, there is a new “Web Slice Gallery”, where users can subscribe to links and are notified when changes are made to the relevant website – a fantastic opportunity for web service operators to further integrate with the user through their browser.

                But all of these exciting new changes for developers aren’t the end of it – there are many improvements to the core functions of Windows 7 that makes the operating system one of the most productive to use and work with. At the core of this is the brand new taskbar: featuring larger icons, no text (by default), and a plethora of configuration and notification options available to both developers and users. Instead of a quick launch area and lozenges for each application, all open applications have one icon each, and appear “stacked” on the taskbar; for example, if you had two Windows Explorer windows open, they appear as one icon on top with another “hidden” behind it. The taskbar also allows the order of icons to be rearranged for easy management, as well as previewing of open windows or tabs (Windows Media Player includes media controls on the preview window too). Combined with Jump Menus mentioned earlier, these features  make for a fantastically useful and productive tool.

                Another big change in Windows 7 is the inclusion of Libraries. These dynamic folders replace the (My) Documents, (My) Pictures and (My) Music of previous Windows versions with a more accessible way of collecting together files. With the increased distribution of files around your file system, external hard disks and network storage areas, it can be difficult to keep track of where you might find a document you are looking for. Libraries ease this problem by allowing you to add folders to the libraries, which then shows all the files of the relevant type inside the library; think of it like the way you would add folders to your Windows Media Player 11 library, but this time for all your documents, organized in one central location.

                As mentioned earlier from a developer’s perspective, Windows 7 include some new Start menu features and searching options not seen in previous versions of Windows. Along with Federated Search and Jump Menus, it includes some new UI elements and animations to make it more visually appealing, changes to the often-confusing power commands, and an improved searching feature.

                Following the introduction of Windows Sidebar and Gadgets in Windows Vista, Microsoft have gone a step further by removing Sidebar and letting users place Gadgets anywhere on the Desktop.  In line with Microsoft’s aims of backwards compatibility with Windows Vista, other Gadgets are available from the Microsoft Gallery website, in addition to a brand new Media Center gadget. To complement the new mobility of Gadgets, the Taskbar now features a dedicated Show Desktop section on the right hand edge – when hovered over, it makes all visible windows transparent so that you can see the Gadgets on the Desktop.

                The final large modification to Windows 7 features a multitude of changes to the Control Panel and the notification system. The Control Panel now features more views and a more accessible interface, making it much simpler for users to find the setting they wish to change quickly and easily. Changes to User Account Control include a slider for choosing how you are notified, with a range of intermediate values replacing the simple and inconvenient On or Off found in Windows Vista; Windows Security Center has been consolidated with other system notification services to form the Windows Solution Center, which contains sections on security and maintenance; and there is a new way to control which system and program notification icons appear on your taskbar.

                The enhancements and developments I have mentioned here represent only a brief overview of the many changes made in Windows 7: I haven’t even started on networking, services, power efficiency, automation, handwriting recognition and so much more. If you’re interested in any of the new developments in Windows 7, I would highly recommend the Windows 7 Developer Guide, available to download from MSDN. Or, download and check out the Beta for yourself, freely available from the Microsoft site until February.