The future of Windows is .Net - Microsoft's initiative for simplifying interaction among computers and related devices and keeping them constantly connected via the Internet.
With both Windows 2000 and Windows Me out the door, Microsoft is already well into development on the .Net successor to both, code-named Whistler.
Whistler, which is intended to merge with and replace Windows 2000 and Windows Me, won't arrive for at least another year. But we took a peek at a very early pre-beta version of Whistler that Microsoft handed out for testing back in June.
What we saw, though obviously subject to change in the final product, suggests a Windows with a richer, more configurable user interface, remote access capabilities, and the ability to follow voice commands and read handwriting.
In addition, the operating system will incorporate some of the .Net technologies Microsoft demonstrated earlier this year.
These features, which will allow you to access information on multiple devices wherever you go, aren't apparent yet - in part because many require server support that hasn't materialised at this early stage.
But you can already interact with Whistler from a Pocket PC - to check email, for example, or to download a file.
Whistler is likely to appear in a professional edition for business desktop users, as well as in various server editions.
And since it is due to grab the consumer OS baton from Windows Me, there may be a home edition as well.
The first changes we noticed in Whistler were in the user interface - the Start Menu, Taskbar, and Explorer.
These predominantly cosmetic changes could help novice users get a grip on this complex OS and could reduce the number of clicks veteran users expend on common tasks.
Microsoft's .Net press conference in June featured a preview of a new customisable browser-like interface uniting application launching, e-mail, and file browsing tasks.
Whistler Build 2250 contains a hidden, still-buggy first stab at a concept called the Start Page.
Far from a new user interface, the Start Page is simply Active Desktop revisited. It could eventually become the primary way users interact with their computers and the Internet, but Microsoft will have to create a killer Start Page if it wants to render the Start Menu, Taskbar, and Explorer obsolete.
More substantive changes include another currently hidden feature: an alternate Start menu mode called Start Panel, which collects frequently used commands and links from disparate Start submenus into a single multicolumn menu window.
The Taskbar gets a tweak or two as well. A "Clean up notification area" setting hides seldom-used icons in the system tray, and you can configure specific icons so that they're always (or never) hidden.
Once you've arranged your Taskbar and its individual toolbars exactly the way you want them, you can lock the configuration into place, preventing Windows from resizing the toolbars the way current versions do.
Want a different look on your desktop? Various preset Visual Styles - collections of colours, frame sizes, and backgrounds - promise a change of scenery in a few clicks. Windows 9x and 2000 let you vary window frame sizes, colours, and fonts, and then save the settings as a Scheme.
Whistler splits these Scheme settings into colour settings, and window and font settings (called Visual Styles). This lets you apply a desktop look and a colour scheme independently - a small but useful improvement.
Like earlier Windows versions, Whistler supports Themes - collections of Schemes, custom icons, and desktop backgrounds. Many Windows 95 and 98 users will remember these from Microsoft Plus add-on packs.
Explorer whistles a new tune
The Windows-interface tweaks in Whistler carry over into Explorer. The most obvious change is enhanced Web content, which appears in folders in the Web View mode.
Like the Start Panel, the beefed-up Web content makes it easier to access common tasks and links, including commands for creating or copying folders and renaming or deleting files. The links are context-sensitive: opening the My Pictures folder, for example, reveals zoom, rotate, and slide show buttons.
Other changes in Explorer are of questionable value. Build 2250's Explorer lets you group folder contents, but doing so only makes sense occasionally. For example, in the My Computer folder, the Grouping view separates your computer's drives into removable and non-removable groups.
Elsewhere, Grouping simply alphabetises by file name - a space-consuming arrangement that forces you to do more scrolling to view folder contents. A new view for folder contents, Tiles, resembles but replaces the seldom-used Small Icons view.
In Tiles view, the item's name and file type appear on multiple lines to the right of the icon, displaying slightly more information about the folder items but occupying more window space.
Control from afar
If you rely on computers daily, you may well have a desktop PC at work, a laptop for business travel, and one or more home computers. Whistler Build 2250 includes remote control client and server software for connecting to a computer over a local area network, dial-up, or VPN connection.
So while you're working at home, you can retrieve files from your office computer, launch applications on the remote computer, and view the interface on your local machine - either in a window or as a full-screen.
Though less full-featured than third-party remote control utilities like LapLink, Whistler's remote control tools might suffice for users who need just the basics.
We tested Whistler's server using Windows 2000's terminal server client and found we could connect and take control of the Whistler machine without problems.
Only one user can be logged on at a time, either remotely or locally, but you can access files and printers from a third system without logging on.
The remote user's session ends as soon as somebody logs on to the machine, so if your kid sits down for a round of Quake III while you're juggling spreadsheets from the office, you're doomed.
As with other Whistler innovations, there's nothing terribly new here. The whole thing runs using Windows Terminal Services, a multi-user remote control system that Microsoft licensed from Citrix a few years back and tacked onto Windows 2000 Server.
Though the corporate version of Terminal Services was too expensive to catch on in a big way, this personal version could be popular with telecommuters, frequent travellers, and late-night workaholics.
Microsoft promises more
Microsoft has promised that many of Windows Me's innovations will show up in Whistler, but most are missing from Build 2250. Though Windows Movie Maker probably won't end up in the Windows .Net Professional product, business users could benefit from Windows Me's networking wizard, Windows Media Player 7, and the System Restore rollback utility - all missing in Build 2250.
Those features may show up in Whistler Beta 1, due later this autumn, as may two other interesting no-shows: speech and handwriting recognition. Build 2250's Control Panel contains an applet labelled Speech v5.0 that bears greyed-out Vocabulary Builder and Vocabulary Editor buttons.
Further exploration causes a crash, and speech recognition appears to be completely disabled in this build. System-level support for speech recognition in Windows, however, could be the factor that finally makes talking to your computer commonplace. (Those working in Dilbert-style cubicles may want to start campaigning now for an office with a door.)
Likewise, handwriting recognition is a disabled option in a text-input settings box in Build 2250. But if it's anything like the brilliant handwriting-recognition software in the Pocket PC OS, Windows.net could make a new generation of high-powered, handheld tablet PCs a reality.