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What the hell is… WinXP's groovy new UI?

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Are we on WinXP Beta 2 yet, or not? And has the radical, revolutionary new UI for XP arrived yet, or not? The answer to both of these questions is of course yes and no.

Rumours had it that Beta 2 of WinXP could ship to coincide with the Microsoft unveiling (which retained many of the veils) of the product last week. It didn't, although build 2428 did ship on the day. But this build, along with the other recent ones, happily welcomes installers to "Beta 2."

The most likely explanation is that XP has been nearly on Beta 2 for several weeks now, and that at least some people within Microsoft reckoned they're pretty close to switch-flipping for most of February. Obviously the people in charge don't think so, otherwise they wouldn't have knocked the official Beta 2 date back two weeks to mid-March, but although the reason given is "we're not hitting our goals," it's not entirely obvious what those goals are.

Microsoft plied The Register with a Beta 1 build late last year, telling us not to go assessing it on performance or on the UI until it hit Beta 2, around the February timeframe. You can no doubt see the direction of our thinking here.

The Beta 1 code has run solidly for the intervening period, and hasn't been particularly slow either (with the exception of Windows Media Player, which is so slow even Windows thinks it's crashed). Recent builds that have escaped from Fort Redmond, 2419 and 2428, don't actually look massively different, and it really does seem as if Microsoft has a solid base that's done, and a front end that still requires tinkering. You might think they haven't got the new UI, but the new UI screenshots Microsoft has published are pretty much like the 2428 screenshots that have been variously on the loose elsewhere.

So, what the hell is this new UI? Visually, nine parts hype. People have been making confused noises about why Microsoft decided to release the shots in 800 x 600, but go and take a look at the desktop and think about it - yes, that's right, if you take away the shortcuts to file a bug report and release notes, you've got a recycle bin and "run in compatibility mode." Nor is it obvious why either of those two should qualify for the desktop in the released version, which could leave you with a very pretty but very empty (available for rental to OEMs etc?) desktop.

Which is of course one of the points, because the "new" start menu, not the desktop, is being designed as "the true launching point for users to... do everything they want on their PC." At the moment this seems to amount to boiling the task bar entries down into mini lists that try to second-guess what you're likely to want to do at any given juncture. Alongside that, the designers have been fiddling with the names of things (in Control Panel, for example) in an attempt to make them more readily understandable to non-techie mortals.

The result of this is, obviously, short lists in large windows, and that kind of cries out for big icons, otherwise it would look silly. Changing the sectioning around and changing the names (fortunately, you can change them back, to some extent) however doesn't entirely amount to what you could call a revolutionary new UI. But there are two other things to throw into the pot.

First of all, there's the way XP promotes or 'bubbles up' the most frequently used apps so they're more accessible in the start menu. We notice that in one of the unofficial screenshot collections an appropriate recently-used app (WinRAR) has indeed bubbled up. But one suspects apps aren't likely to bubble up ahead of certain preferred Microsoft buttons.

The second factor to consider is context-sensitive help and access to applications. This is something that Microsoft has been striving to get into Windows for years, and there are clear signs in the XP code that it really wants to make something of it this time around. But can it? In the product activation phase of the most recent builds a cartoon Wizard pops up, introduces himself as Merlin, and offers context-sensitive help. But our informants claim to have clicked on him and hammered away at F1 to no avail - Merlin's underlying help seems not to have arrived yet.

More positively, some actions do seems to trigger useful context sensitive stuff. Dragging files to a CD/R drive, for example, produces a "learn about CD burning" option. One of the goals for the finished product will surely be to get a lot more of this kind of stuff in, but the trouble is that the way Microsoft builds, it's going to be a lot more to do with poor grunts trying to figure out what context-sensitive things people are likely to want to do, then tooling them in. This, we fear, is how animated paperclips get built.

As always with new Microsoft products, it's well worth scanning the installation guides for gotchas and getchas. Right now the antivirus companies seem to be on the getcha list again, and with the advent of CD burning as a part of the OS, there are copious instructions for ripping all of the Easy-CD and DirectCD stuff out of your registry before you can install the beta. But then, Microsoft intends to police CD burning through Rights Manager, so one would expect a certain amount of tidying up at this juncture. ®

Microsoft's small collection of minimalist XP shots

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