Windows 8 imminent as Microsoft reveals more stuff

30 Aug 2011

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Windows 8 imminent as Microsoft reveals more stuff

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The imminent arrival of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system could not be clearer as the software giant shows off yet again more new features – this time new features of Windows Explorer.

Steve Sinofsky is at it again. In a blog post last night he included an outline of new features by Alex Simons of the Windows 8 program management team on some of the changes we can expect in the pivotal Windows Explorer tool.

“Windows Explorer is a foundation of the user experience of the Windows desktop and has undergone several design changes over the years, but has not seen a substantial change in quite some time. Windows 8 is about reimagining Windows, so we took on the challenge to improve the most widely used desktop tool (except maybe for Solitaire) in Windows,” Sinofsky wrote in the Windows 8 blog.

This is the third gushing revelation of new features Sinofsky et al have outlined in the last couple of months – the fact that Windows 8 will run on both Intel and ARM platforms, that Windows 8 will come with its own App Store and today a new ribbonised style of using Windows Explorer.

My gut tells me this could only mean Windows 8 will come sooner than we think, certainly this side of Christmas.

Sinofsky et al’s excitement is palpable and certainly from what I can tell it looks like an even more ambitious upheaval of the Windows operating system since XP.Why? Because it seems top down and ready for new platforms like media slates and obviously will correspond with the Microsoft ecosystem’s three screens’ vision – smartphone, computer, TV.

It also makes sense to me that if a new version of Windows Phone 7 (Mango) is due soon that it should launch in concert with a new computing OS. Heck, maybe they’ll call it Windows Phone 8?

After taking us through a history of file management in Windows, Simons said: “Over the years, Explorer has grown to support a number of different scenarios, many unrelated to file management – launching programs, viewing photos, playing videos, and playing music, to name just a few. We wanted to know which of these capabilities customers were really using. Using telemetry data, we were able to answer the question of how the broadest set of customers use Explorer in aggregate. As a reminder, the telemetry data is opt-in, anonymous, and private, but it does represent hundreds of millions of sessions from all customer types.”

He said Microsoft’s data shows that even though there are over 200 commands in Explorer, customers use a small number of them with any real frequency: the top 10 commands represent 81.8pc of total usage. Additionally it shows us that people overwhelmingly use Explorer for core file management tasks – the top 7 commands (72.2pc of usage) are all for managing/manipulating files.

“Only 2 of the top 10 commands customers invoke in Explorer are available in the Command bar, the main UI element for invoking commands. This further reinforced our thinking that there was a big opportunity here to improve Explorer by making common commands more readily available. A clear user interface design principle is that frequently used commands should be easy to get to—clearly we had not yet accomplished that with existing designs.”

The ribbon returns

He said that the biggest category of feedback was requests to bring back features from Windows XP that were removed in Windows Vista, especially things like bringing back the "Up" button from Windows XP, adding cut, copy, & paste back into the top-level UI, and for providing a more customizable command surface. Also frequently requested is the need for more keyboard shortcuts.

“We evaluated several different UI (user interface) command affordances including expanded versions of the Vista/Windows 7 command bar, Windows 95/Windows XP style toolbars and menus, several entirely new UI approaches, and the Office style ribbon.

“The ribbon would allow us to create an optimised file manager where commands would have reliable, logical locations in a streamlined experience. The flexibility of the ribbon with many icon options, tabs, flexible layout and groupings also ensured that we could respect Explorer’s heritage.

“We could present a rich set of commands without removing access to previously top-level commands, something we knew was really important to our customers. As it so happens, while not primarily a touch interface, the ribbon also provides a much more reliable and usable touch-only interface than pull-down menus and context menus.

“We definitely know there is a lot of interest but also want to make clear that we know how important keyboard and mouse scenarios are to power-user scenarios of file management.”

This level of openness from Microsoft ahead of a new OS launch is really a sign of the times we are in and software companies large and small see blogs as a pivotal way to prepare the way for major changes ahead.

While Windows 7 has undoubtedly been Microsoft’s most successful OS, it is clear that XP which debuted a decade ago had many usable features that users still hanker for.

Aspects of the new ribbon

According to Simons:

·        The Home tab is focused on the core file management tasks, and we’ve put all the major file management commands there in prominent locations: Copy, Paste, Delete, Rename, Cut, and Properties. We’ve also given new prominence to two popular heritage features, Move to and Copy to, along with exposing a hidden gem, Copy path, which is really useful when you need to paste a file path into a file dialog, or when you want to email someone a link to a file on a server.

·        The Home tab is the heart of our new, much more streamlined Explorer experience. The commands that make up 84pc of what customers do in Explorer are now all available on this one tab

·        The file menu lets you quickly open new Explorer windows, access your shortcuts, and change folder and search options. It also includes a hidden feature that we love, Open command prompt, and a really useful new command, Open command prompt as administrator, both of which launch a command prompt with the path set to the currently selected folder.

·        The Search tab surfaces a bunch of hidden gems that most people are not aware of, but that could solve some common problems for them. You can quickly adjust the scope of any search, filter by common date ranges, file type, file size, and other properties like the author or name. Then you can save these searches for future use.

·        One of the top requests from more advanced users is for more keyboard shortcuts. All of the existing Windows Explorer shortcuts work in this version of Explorer, but with our new approach, all of the approximately 200 commands in the ribbon now have keyboard shortcuts as well. (Note that we haven’t finalized the exact number of commands in the ribbon yet. It will likely end up between 198 and 203 when we’re done.)

·        The new Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) in Explorer provides a lot of customization opportunities. Similar to Office, by right-clicking any button in the ribbon, you can add it to the QAT. Additionally, you can choose to have the QAT display above or below the ribbon, and to display the ribbon in an open or minimized state. This is a big increase in the level of customization available in Explorer (you can choose approximately 200 commands to add to the QAT) and returns it to a level equal to or greater than we had in Windows XP.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com