Software Improves Microsoft Look, Feel; the New Office Is Due out in Late Fall, and the Windows Vista Operating System in Early 2007

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Byline: TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS

ORLANDO -- Years ago, Microsoft tried to attract customers by asking, "Where do you want to go today?"

Now, as it readies to launch Windows Vista -- the newest version of its operating system -- and Microsoft Office 2007, the question now appears to be, "What do you plan on searching for today?"

It's a new paradigm for the company, as it moves away from its strictly hierarchical folder system to a platform where data in a variety of formats can be grouped together based on a range of criteria -- everything you've worked on in the past day, for instance, or anything you have on the machine that mentions goldfish.

"Space is relatively cheap," said Adam Hecktman, director of the company's Chicago technology team who was in Orlando Friday for Microsoft's annual sales force meeting. During the event Microsoft gave the Times-Union a briefing and hands-on walkthrough of both of the new software packages.

"With the proliferation of space, there's been a corresponding growth in the amount of data," said Hecktman.

In short, with businesses filling up hard drives with e-mail, spreadsheets and documents, and consumers adding music, photos and more to their machines, expecting users to remember where they saved everything is a losing proposition.

Dealing with that issue, as well as making it easier for users to work together on projects, are two of the main things Microsoft hopes to address with the two new mammoth software packages.

Office, which can be installed on machines running Windows XP, is expected to be available in the late fall, while Vista, the new Windows operating system, is scheduled for roll out (after several well-publicized delays) early next year.

Both products take huge steps forward in terms of look and feel, to the extent that the operating system actually includes a new graphics engine responsible for eye-popping graphics and lush displays. More importantly, though, both Office and Vista appear to be more functional and easy to use, rivaling competitor Apple Computer's OS X in the ways Vista gives users immense control of the computing experience.

In the new operating system, for example, users can easily add "gadgets" -- small programs like a clock, a calculator or an RSS feed reader -- to the side of the desktop, putting such utilities close to hand.

Much of the change in Vista, though, comes from things not having to be close to hand. Clicking on the start icon (which, incidentally, is now just a circular icon, no longer labeled "start," bringing peace of mind to those who hate clicking the start button to shut down the machine) brings up a search bar that appears to often be the easiest way of accessing data. You don't even have to bother launching an application: typing, finding and clicking gets everything rolling.

Adding to the idea of all-encompassing search, Microsoft has implemented an idea familiar to those who haunt online photo sites such as Flickr: Files can be tagged with descriptions, such as marking all expense reports as "accounting work."

Searches can also be saved as virtual folders; a virtual folder "bob," for instance, can contain everything from e-mail correspondence with Bob, to pictures of Bob, to his performance review or simply a file tagged with his name. And, of course, virtual folders are also searchable, although if you're at the point that you're searching your searches, you might have a problem.

The new operating system also features greatly enhanced security -- definitely a plus in a world awash in viruses and hackers who have previously exploited bugs in the world's most popular software. …