Windows XP debuts to a rock beat

Formerly code-named "Whistler," Windows XP should be out by the fourth quarter of this year and is expected to appeal mostly to consumers. The OS was designed with a heavy focus on running media-rich applications to entice media-savvy users.

In 1995, for the launch of its Windows 95 operating system, Microsoft enlisted the help of The Rolling Stones and the group's song, "Start Me Up." This time around, Microsoft is expected to rely on Jimi Hendrix and his rock classic "Are You Experienced" to set the tone when the product rolls out later this year. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen created the EMP as tribute to Hendrix. Also adding to the mood here is the huge Windows XP banner on the city's landmark Space Needle.

Inside the museum, Gates portrayed the new Windows as an OS for the everyday user. The opening display shown Tuesday featured a blue, cloudy background displaying only the names of the computer's users, a family for instance, without icons or a start button. Multiple users can set up individual preferences so that after Windows XP loads, all of them see a menu listing their names, the programs they left running and any unread e-mail. Each user can leave their applications running while away from the computer and come back to them in full swing.

When a user clicks on a name, a screen that looks similar to the current Windows version appears. The start button remains in the lower left corner. When clicked on, however, the start menu pops up to display each user's five most-used applications. Beyond that, Microsoft showed few other changes to the OS, besides larger buttons to load software applications.

"The philosophy in this vision really came from listening to users," Gates said. "Boy, can they tell us things they would like to see improved."

One new feature that Windows users might appreciate allows them to give each other remote help via the Internet. The person requesting help can permit a friend to see his screen via a chat-type protocol and even run programs from the original user's machine. The feature is supposed to allow people at home or in the office to fix problems for each other. Microsoft would not elaborate on the security features of this new application other than saying the information is encrypted upon transfer.

"Not only do people want to use their PCs, but they want them to work together in some exciting ways," Gates said.

Less experienced users will also find a Control Panel Wizard which guides them through various PC maintenance tasks.

Microsoft showed off its Media Player 8, Movie Maker and some new ways to store digital photos all embedded into the new OS. These applications do not stretch far beyond what the software giant already offers but are helped by the cleaner user interface and more manageable file control.

"All of the media applications demand that Windows step up and be the centre of all those activities," Gates said.

Most of the features showcased in the media applications were demonstrated late last year. Users, for instance, can play both music and now DVDs on the Media Player program and pull content like album art automatically off the Net. Users can also use CD burning software and save music in the Microsoft format which is half the size of an MP3 file, Gates claimed. Microsoft previously predicted the new file format would beat MP3s by a factor of three.

In addition, Microsoft claims it has simplified the ways in which users can share files with each other and upload them onto differing devices. Gates showed media file transfer between a Pocket PC handheld device and a portable MP3 player all conducted via Media Player 8.

Users undoubtedly also will be pleased that the new OS is said to offer improved stability. Windows XP is Microsoft's first operating system geared towards consumers that uses the same code base as Windows 2000 and NT which target business users.

"It is the system my mum deserves," said Jim Allchin, group vice president of the platforms division at Microsoft, showing the second beta of the Professional Edition of Windows XP. "It is the system that she needs. I would like to reduce those phone calls."

"One of the things Microsoft suffers from is that the market has changed," said Chris Le Tocq, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc. "People see PCs as appliances. The enthusiasts are out there, and those are the people Microsoft will happily take cheques from."

Le Tocq looks for technophiles to lead early adoption of the new OS, citing their interest in the updated look-and-feel. It could take some time, however, to attract those who see the PC as an extension of their home entertainment setup. The revamped version of Windows comes packed with media applications but will that be enough to push it past more common media players in the mass markets, Le Tocq questioned.

Gates deflected questions about the new pricing for Windows XP. Analysts speculated Microsoft would unveil a subscription-based payment system in which users would pay for yearly upgrades. Gates, however, remained tight-lipped.

"The pricing will be similar to what we have done in the past," he said with a wry smile.

Le Tocq expects Microsoft to announce the subscription pricing at a later date.

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