Top 10 Windows 7 Features #2: Device Stage

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If the strange feeling that Vista was less secure than XP was topmost on critics' gripe lists over the last three years -- regardless of the facts which contra-indicate that feeling -- running a close second was the feeling that very little, if anything, outside of the PC worked with Vista when you plugged it in.

Here, the facts aren't all there to compensate for the feeling. Even in recent months, Palm Centro users complained about the lack of a Vista driver for connecting Centro to the PC outside of a very slow Bluetooth; Minolta scanner users were advised to hack their own .INF files with Notepad in order to get Vista to recognize their brands; and Canon digital camera owners are being told by that company's tech support staff that Microsoft was supposed to make the Vista drivers for their cameras, but didn't.

What's going on here? Certainly, Microsoft shouldn't be responsible for producing drivers for every little thing that could fit the other side of a USB cable. On the other hand, if device manufacturers haven't reached that same conclusion, whose fault was it that they weren't steered in the right direction back while Vista was in beta?

With Windows 7, Microsoft is making a concerted and earnest effort to avoid enabling a repeat performance. Its gamble is that Windows 7 can create an avenue, for the first time, for manufacturers of printers, cameras, smartphones, music players, and other devices to build completely customized extensions of the desktop. The inspiration was an idea presented internally by Microsoft engineers in prototype form a few years ago: You plug in a smartphone, and it appears on your desktop.

That idea evolved somewhat into what Microsoft calls the Device Stage, with the notion that once you plug in a recognized device, something bigger and better than just an icon represents it on your Windows 7 desktop. You plug in your phone, and boom, there it is -- not the brand name of the manufacturer, but a real picture of the phone. (3D renderings of the device were considered as an option, I'm told.) From there, the device manufacturer is free to present a completely customized operations and management interface specifically geared around the device. Think of it like the device's "home page" -- it opens up, and you see clearly stated or rendered links to the things the device can do.

Since the Windows 7 taskbar itself has changed since that initial prototype was presented, the concept has evolved a bit, and in a sense simplified. Now when you plug in a recognized device, an icon for it does appear in the new taskbar, and it can be "pinned" there just like an application. Hovering over it brings up a frame that can serve as a status report for the device -- for instance, registering the battery level for a phone or a camera, or showing how many songs are loaded in an MP3 player and how many minutes or megabytes remain.

Up to now, providing such a customized view of a plugged-in device's capabilities required the manufacturer to be willing to write the software pretty much from scratch, and then have that software behave nicely with its own device driver. Microsoft still needs its supporting device manufacturers to make some effort, but this time, it's using Web-oriented technologies to at least try to ease their burden.

What Microsoft is hoping manufacturers will embrace is a concept called the Device Stage metadata package. It's an XML-based file that represents all the visual elements that the user sees when he plugs in a device (or when Bluetooth captures it), and all the software components related to the functions that device performs, in an explicit database. Conceivably, that software can be installed automatically through the Internet as the device is plugged in (or comes in range), since the metadata package will contain instructions for how Win7 retrieves it, and how it should be registered locally.

The metadata also links to pictures and other assets supplied by the manufacturer, so the user doesn't see the driver as something that "belongs" to Microsoft -- which may end up helping Microsoft just as well as the manufacturer.

The big goal there is to eliminate the need for the user to run a CD-ROM driver setup routine before Windows ever comes within a hundred feet of the device -- today, users who have opened boxes to find "Do Not Do Anything Else Until You Install This Software" warnings, are literally scared to trust Vista afterward. But there's a bonus which Microsoft is fully aware of but doesn't talk much about lest it cast a jinx: The fewer CD-ROM setup routines a user has to install, the less opportunities there are for installing bloatware and useless software that clogs up the operating system, that befuddles users with unwanted advertising, and that makes users blame Windows for their frustration. Device Stage metadata is only for providing device functionality, nothing more.

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