Leaks indicate Microsoft is un-rethinking the Win7 taskbar

During last week's touring WinHEC conference in Beijing, attendees were treated to the latest Windows 7 build running in a virtual machine. Trouble is, someone apparently pilfered a copy of the VHD, and now it's loose.

The security around uninstalled copies of Windows 7 is fairly tight. But the security around a copy that has been installed to a PC's virtual machine, might not be tight at all. So an attendee at last week's Beijing WinHEC conference was apparently able to copy the VHD file for the virtual machine to a thumb drive, before uploading it to a Web file host, and providing the link to a very popular Chinese beta news site (not affiliated with BetaNews).

As of late Monday afternoon, East Coast time, the Web host was not serving the file in question, although posters to the news site's forum indicate that many people already downloaded and ran the VHD file successfully. While some bestowed positive comments on the uploader, which translated into English through Google as "hero," other comments we found appeared to accuse him of being an agent of foreign governments seeking to sublimate the Chinese people through the systematic infusion of what clearly translated as something we can't print.

Screenshots attributed to the pilfered VHD include a build number 6951 plus other identifying data, which matches photographs of the verified Windows 7 made during the conference. It could either underscore the veracity of the screenshots, or attest to the acumen of some forger with a lot of time on his hands. We don't expect Microsoft to verify this information, though as soon as tomorrow, developers in Houston should be able to at least see, most likely touch, and possibly take with them, the first official betas of Windows 7.

If the screenshots are indeed valid, then they reveal two very important developments since the last developers' release we saw last October: While Microsoft's design crew have been experimenting with a revised taskbar that has removed the text labels used since Windows 95, the recent screenshots indicate that text may have returned as an option, at least for this build that premiered in Asia. This iteration of the taskbar is actually more familiar and less changed than the ones we've seen before, although text can apparently be turned off. And certain icons previously attributed to the QuickLaunch toolbar (still absent) remain present in the taskbar, interspersed among the running applications. The logic of how they're dispersed has yet to be determined.

Also, in a development that should evoke the comment, "Oh, yeah!" from everyone who thus far has seen it but not noticed it...the Aero windows have semi-transparent borders. Of course, that's a feature that premiered in Windows Vista. But in a virtual machine, semi-transparency doesn't typically work because the virtual video driver in Microsoft's Virtual PC does not enable full DirectX 9 compatibility.

This could indicate either that the screenshots (if valid) were taken on a more sophisticated platform than normal (still possible), or that Build 6951 contains the new feature blogger Long Zheng revealed two weeks ago: a software rendering engine currently called WARP10 that enables graphics made for DirectX 10 to be rendered on cards that could just barely physically support DirectX 9.

Commenters on Zheng's story were wondering if WARP10 would enable high-level graphics rendering, such as that seen in the game Crysis, on virtual machines. Assuming all the "if's" in our story to this point have been checked off, the answer could be yes.

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