Pointing fingers: The darker and lighter sides of Windows 7

Check out those whizzy new Windows 7 features! But hey, Vista is still the best operating system ever

It's a classic "good news, bad news" kind of story. Microsoft is finally giving us some hard information about what Windows 7 will look like.

And there's much of interest, including wider use of touch-screen technology (more about that later) and news that the new OS kernel won't represent a break from the past.

Pointing blame away from Microsoft?

But then there's the Windows Advisor. Details are still skimpy, but it appears that the company has a tool in beta that will tell users the source of their operating system problems. (Credit where credit is due. Mary Jo Foley, who has followed Microsoft forever, broke the news in her blog late Tuesday.)

Well, excuse my cynicism, but given the seemingly endless user complaints about Vista, you've got to think that Microsoft would like to deflect some of that blame. According to Foley, here's information that Microsoft gave to its private beta testers:

"While in the past support was limited to a help desk, today the lines are becoming blurred between the various technologies. When a user has a sluggish Internet connection, is it due to a connectivity issue, spyware, a virus, an outdated or poorly maintained computer, the router, a failing hard drive, or simply the customer's impatience? To be effective in today's environment, computer care and support services must be more comprehensive and accurate. That's where we believe Windows Advisor comes in.

"Windows Advisor is an easy-to-use self-help tool that notifies users about problems on their PCs and helps fix them. Windows Advisor scans users' PCs continuously, notifies them about important issues, and, when possible, suggests easy fix solutions."

If Advisor replaces the utterly unhelpful Windows error messages we all hate, that would certainly be a good thing. And to be fair, there are plenty of areas in which vendors, including heavyweights like Hewlett-Packard, have done a poor job supporting Vista, particularly with drivers. But you have to believe it's no accident that the paragraphs above don't even mention Vista. Microsoft has been unwilling to fess up and fix many of the new operating system's shortcomings, which is why InfoWorld has led the charge to keep Windows XP alive.

Touching Windows

A lot of people made fun of Microsoft's Surface computing initiative, as in "Who wants a coffee table for a computer?" But snarky jokes aside, touch-screen technology has tremendous potential.

During a talk by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer (along with a demo) at the Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital conference, the company said that Surface technology will appear in Windows 7, now due in 2010 or so. Beyond the ability to manipulate digital photos, the demo included a paint program, a piano app that lets a user play what sounded like MIDI tunes by touching the app's virtual keys, and a mashup of data from Windows Live Local and Microsoft Virtual Earth. Users can tap on the map display and quickly drill down to much tighter views and relevant data.

Surface technology will be a world of improvement over Vista's so-so interface if (and it's a big if) the technology is deeply embedded in the OS, and not just used as eye candy on a few spiffy, but nonessential, apps. We'll see.

You can get a better idea of the collaborative potential of advanced touch-screen technology by checking out Perceptive Pixel, whose nine-foot displays can be seen during election coverage on several cable networks.

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Evolution, not revolution

In a blog post earlier this week, Microsoft's Chris Flores said that Windows 7 will be an evolution of the Vista kernel and "one of our design goals for Windows 7 is that it will run on the recommended hardware we specified for Windows Vista and that the applications and devices that work with Windows Vista will be compatible with Windows 7."

That's good news, of course, but you'll have to wait for more details. Flores said that releasing information too early causes confusion. "We know that when we talk about our plans for the next release of Windows, people take action. As a result, we can significantly impact our partners and our customers if we broadly share information that later changes." The rise, fall, and final disappearance of the new file system in Vista is probably part of what he had in mind.

On the other hand, if Microsoft doesn't do better, early work with its partners regarding drivers and compatibility, the company -- and its customers -- will be right back in the (Vista) soup.

(Disclosure: I own a small number of Microsoft shares.)