Top 10 Windows 7 Features #10: Homegroup networking

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Beginning now, Betanews is going to get a lot more intimate with technology than you've seen us before, particularly with Microsoft Windows 7 now that it's becoming a reality. Next Tuesday, the first and probably only Release Candidate of the operating system will become available for free download.

It's probably not so much a testing exercise as a colossal promotional giveaway, a way to get Windows 7 out in the field very fast...and use that leverage to push Vista out of the way of history. So much of what you'll see in the Release Candidate in terms of underlying technology is finalized; any tweaks that will be done between now and the general release date (which PC manufacturer Acer blabbed last night will be October 23) will likely be in the looks department.


So with a reasonable degree of confidence that the Win7 RC is much more than half-baked, today Betanews begins a continuing series looking into what we believe to be the ten most important new features that Win7 brings to the table -- features that represent significant changes to the platform we've been calling Vista, and changes which appear very likely to be improvements. Maybe they should have been part of Vista to start with.

There's no reason that the experience of setting up networking equipment at home should be a subset of the pain and misery businesses sustain when they toil and sweat over Vista. Business networking has evolved into a very complicated context that cannot be made simpler or more palatable or livable through the use of any metaphor you can come up with. You can't make Active Directory simple enough for everyday home users to want to wrestle with it, or even for sophisticated network admins to want to deal with the same dredge when they get home.

In Microsoft laboratory projects that first came to light during the "Code Name Longhorn" project in 2003, engineers found themselves reasoning this way: There's only a few basic principles that home network users want to see implemented anyway. They want all their machines to share content with one another. They want any resource to be visible to the entire network (why would you want to hide a printer?). If they do mean to hide something from accessibility, users want the ability to do so explicitly, but only when it's necessary. They want portable components and devices to know they're on the network when they're in range or plugged in, and for the network to know when they're gone. And they want other people's equipment to stay off of their network.

So the trust situations between home network components should be fairly straightforward. Thus rather than forcing home users to wrestle with enterprise-quality network resources, but just have them wrestle with it the same way every day until they get accustomed to it, the engineers came up with an idea called "Castle," whose legacy is a mention in Microsoft's pre-release privacy statement for Longhorn testers. Without invoking any part of Active Directory (and making the Windows Client far more cumbersome than it needed to be), this system created a kind of default home network user template that applied in most situations, creates the trusts that most users would expect, and gives users easier ways to adjust those trusts when necessary.

Vista was so late to the game in getting anything even partly resembling Castle to market that only in Service Pack 2, which hasn't even been released to the public yet, will we see a feature called Windows Connect Now -- a facility that actually works just fine in Windows XP SP2 -- be implemented for the first time in Vista.

Finally, Windows 7 is giving this concept a try, with what's called the Homegroup (now with a lower-case "g," in keeping with the growing trend to remove unnecessary upper-case from product names). The basic concept boils down to this: If Win7 devices can identify themselves as being "at home" when they're on premises, then there's really no reason why their shared resources can't all be seen as unified. In other words, not "Scott's Pictures" and "Jennifer's Pictures" but "Pictures."

Enrolling a computer as a homegroup member is a simple process -- so simple that reviewers of the earlier Win7 betas, for good reason, were skeptical that the security would be as porous as Windows XP. To become a member of an existing homegroup, one need only know the password, the default for which was generated when the first Win7 computer created the homegroup. For now, only Windows 7 computers can be homegroup members, and that will likely always be the case seeing as how WCN functionality was only just now added to Vista SP2 (unless there is an SP3 to come).

Next: The promise of single media libraries...

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