Top 10 Windows 7 features #1: Action Center

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It's a sad fact which even Microsoft itself has stopped denying: The success of Windows in recent years has been despite the fact that the operating system isn't exactly embraced by its users. The percentage of Windows users who love Windows may not come anywhere near the percentage of Mac OS users who love Macintosh. Windows is what comes on most people's PCs.

In the past few months, Microsoft's marketing campaign has cleverly (and finally) diverted attention away from Vista, which on a public relations scale has largely failed to win the public's affection. Instead, you'll notice that the selling point of Windows recently is that it enables you to buy a bigger and better PC. Spend $1,500 or less and you're going to get twice the memory, twice the storage, and much better graphics. The word "Vista" doesn't even appear in the company's advertising. It's an effective argument -- what's more, it's accurate, and it's the strongest argument in Microsoft's favor.

But it can only last until roughly next month, when Windows 7 is likely to be released to manufacturing in advance of an October 22 public unveiling. Beginning in the next few weeks, the company must change its tack. It needs to stop marketing "the PC," and start pitching Windows 7. The reason is complex: Microsoft could choose instead to do nothing on the marketing front (a choice it's made before) and let Windows succeed by virtue of its lock on the world's OEMs. But despite the majority market share the system would continue to hold onto, the way the company's business is structured today, it could still lose some market share and, as a result, lose a lot of revenue. The near-monopoly guarantee isn't enough to keep Windows profitable.

Windows 7 must change the game for Microsoft, and it must do so now. The best, most viable, and possibly the most dangerous argument the company can advance at this point -- but one which would absolutely win the day -- is that Windows 7 is less annoying and more reliable than Vista.

If consumers can be convinced of this, first with a marketing pitch followed by a strong product, Apple's strongest argument in its favor -- that Mac OS is lovable -- would be nullified. For that reason, the entire ballgame for Windows 7 may, and probably will, come down to whether consumers embrace one new feature in particular: Action Center.

Early testers who first encountered this new feature back in October when it was dubbed "Solution Center," and in later builds starting in December when it took on the name of "Action," first thought, "It's Security Center renamed. So what?" A thorough tester will come to realize that Action Center is built on the remains of Vista's Security Center -- it's a resource built on the old one's razed foundation.

And it contains the first Windows 7 feature Microsoft was willing and ready to display publicly: the slider switch that dials up or down User Account Control, Vista's most effective -- yet most annoying -- feature. When Betanews first revealed last October that it would enable users to effectively turn off UAC, there were two classes of response. One was from general users who were literally overjoyed; the other came from a furious security community who believed Microsoft was blowing open an escape hatch for the most effective trap it had ever deployed against everyday malware.

Still, the "volume knob" for UAC gives Windows 7 users something they've been desperately needing: a feeling that they're more in control. When a knowledgeable user uses Regedit to make a change to the System Registry, and UAC interrupts her to ask whether Regedit may make a change to the System Registry -- after she already launched Regedit as an administrator -- this knob gives users a way to say to Windows in advance, "Trust me. I know what I'm doing."

That phrase could very well be applied to all of Action Center, as a general theme for this revised feature. In a way, "Security Center" reinforced the feeling that security was desperately necessary, a bit like trying to find comfort in the midst of an airport on high alert. By comparison, Action Center incorporates "Security" as an everyday function along with "Maintenance" -- part of the upkeep of the computer. As such, Backup is given higher importance -- if you think about it, what's more important to the security of the system than having duplicates of your important documents?

"Troubleshooting" becomes a part of maintenance; and even here, the term takes on a more real-world meaning. In everyday existence, troubleshooting is a preventative action; only in computing has the phrase come to mean something reactionary, a response to a problem. Windows 7 enables more routine maintenance to take place in the background -- not just defragmenting the hard drive as a scheduled task once a week, but potentially checking for problems that users have reported and that the system has downloaded.

Next: How Action Center can succeed, and how it can fail…

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