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Photograph by Annie Marie Musselman

Fast Company

The Six "Wow" Features of Windows 7

How Sam Moreau and his eclectic team of architects, industrial designers, and writers created the "Wow!" features of Microsoft's new operating system.

"We set out to ask: What's the Windows way to do something?" says Sam Moreau, Microsoft's head of user-experience design for Windows 7. "We had to make sure that we took care of Windows as having an authentic soul." He knows you may be snickering, especially if you use Vista. "Vista tried to do a lot of things, and the places where we didn't finish the job are the places people feel," he says.

The early positive reviews suggest that Moreau has helped make Windows 7 much more satisfying to use. Engadget called it "fast, painless, and complication free," and as Gizmodo charmingly notes, "Even the Mactards will have to tone down their nasal David Spadian snide, at least a little bit."

Silencing Mac snobs is merely a side benefit of Moreau's official goal: Quiet desktop clutter and shave seconds off of daily tasks. "Windows' point of view is about adding value and solving distractions," he says.

A career Web designer, Moreau was an unlikely choice to pull this off. "I was told that was the point," he says. In turn, he amassed his own band of architects, artists, and writers who could bring fresh perspectives to Windows 7. We asked Moreau and his team to tell the tales behind six buzzed-about Windows 7 features.

1 Boot-Up Intro

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Vista opened with a series of blinks and beeps that reflected the under-the-hood technical operations. With Windows 7, Moreau wanted to mask the mechanics with stirring cinema. Writer Rolf Ebeling led the design of the 105-frame sequence. "It was nerve-wracking when Sam leaned into my doorway and asked, 'How good is your animation?' " says Ebeling. He used swirling fireflies that coalesce into the Windows icon to foreshadow the operating system's use of light. "As a journalist, I knew I needed to make the point quickly, but how do you get the tone just right and make it something people want to come back to again and again?"

2 Task Bar

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Windows Vista used a sheet-of-glass effect on the task bar, but Moreau and company made it more realistic. Industrial designer Stephan Hoefnagels studied physical properties of everything from Audi taillights to bioluminescent sea creatures to lava lamps, and then crafted more than 90 prototypes to make the task bar's light look "energetic and alive" and the refraction realistic. "As you hover over an application, the tile glows, but as you move, the light trails and follows you," he says. Rather than cast a monochromatic aura, Windows 7 pulls color from the application (Firefox, for example, burns orange). "The task bar is the face of Windows, but the icons are the stars of the show."

3 Desktop Wallpapers

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Windows 7's wallpapers eschew placid landscapes for psychedelic anime turtles and slick Seattle streetscapes. "Choosing the safest options would have been the Microsoft default, but we wanted to provoke a strong emotional connection," says Denise Trabona, a former design director for MSNBC. She also broadened the range of photographers and illustrators, to reflect Microsoft's global reach, and added architectural pics into the mix for the first time. She says, "Our guidance to the artists was straightforward: Give us light and energy."

4 Jump Lists

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A pop-up menu of application-related shortcuts, Jump Lists is a powerful feature hidden behind a right click. In one prototype, the design team indicated the feature with a button and an arrow next to each icon, but a few players balked. "There's a tremendous amount of functionality hidden behind a kitchen's cabinets and drawers," says Joey Pitt, who worked as an architect before joining Microsoft. "Rather than an immediate cacophony of labels and flashing signs on every drawer, it's better for users if the experience unfolds over time."

5 Aero Shake

Boot Up

Aero Shake's back-and-forth mouse motion has its roots in a feature called Aladdin, which allowed users to "rub" a window to keep it hovering temporarily in the foreground. "Aladdin was fun," designer Hoefnagels says, "but at some point, the rubbing got tiresome and it was like, Okay, let's just click over." Aladdin's on the cutting-room floor, but the gesture's whimsy became the Aero Shake. Use your mouse to vigorously "shake" an open window and watch the others fly closed. A gimmick? Maybe, but users rave about its ability to quickly declutter desktops.

6 Libraries

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Lisa Cherian, an industrial designer and design teacher, raised more than a few eyebrows when she first joined the Windows 7 team and asked nondesigners to diagram how they'd train an alien to brush his teeth. "What we need in a software environment is the concept sketch," she says. "In industrial design, you return to it again and again: 'This is what I'm making. This is what it feels like.' It's essential to your focus." Employing that industrial-design discipline, Cherian created a concept sketch for Libraries, a feature that lets users easily access and sort their pictures, music, and video no matter whether they're buried deep in a file folder or stashed on an external hard drive. Returning often to the sketch helped rein in the feature creep that threatened to choke the project.

Photograph by Annie Marie Musselman

Add New Comment

15 Comments

  • David Molden

    Anyone who is 'wowed' by a new version of Windows needs an emotional check-up. New software for a medical procedure, or engineering innovation maybe, but an operating system? If developer companies took a leaf out of Gayna Hart of Quicksilva's book more of them would be looking for their wows from a real-world experience with other people. To really know a wow when you have one go to www.quadrant1.com and sign up!

  • Hypnotherapy Winchester

    I am an avid fan of XP - a stable and well-tested platform. My other half uses Vista on her laptop and it drives me to distraction when I have to use it - not very user-friendly. And I suppose I assume that 7 will be the same....or worse!

    --
    Winchester Hypnotherapy

  • Antoinette Taus

    I'm a loyal user of Windows, and I must say that I'm impressed with these cool new features offered by them. Still, Windows is the best for me compared to any other competitors.

    Antoinette Taus

  • John Wiley

    Windows 7 has been pretty solid on all 3 home networked machines for me since Technet got the RTM out to us. The part that is attractive is the integration of features and services. It also has a more granular approach for the tech hungry geeks as well as wizards and somewhat self-healing diagnostics for those that despise some of the more cryptic aspects of Windows in general. Networking is strong and works and much more secure. The look is fantastic without the lag in Vista. There still is a hang now and then when one or too many items are clicked on, frustrating but can be avoided just by slowing down a little. Hope this helps in some way.

    John
    Aka Angry CPU

  • Franklin Dillich

    this is probably one of the worst written articles I've ever read, but yeah. Windows 7 is excellent. it may sound stupid, but the changes from vista make for the ultimate OS. I've had zero trouble with it, no hangups or crashes.

  • Craig Murray

    I understand the predicament that MSFT is in, giving someone an incentive to upgrade to a new OS with all of their backward compatible requirements. Their challenge is that overall the OS is something that should almost be invisible to the user. Adding neat look and feel stuff is not overly motivating, but something that works and doesn't require regular restart, hangs, etc. In the case of Apple, they bring together many systems into their OS such that it becomes easier to justify the expense of the upgrade. Along with the significantly lower cost of entry. Where the hardware vendors gave away so much to the software guys in the past, I think companies like Apple (hardware, OS, basic apps all included) are going to clean house and Windows 7 will flop much the same as Vista...Virtually no incentive.

  • Bill Ingle

    One of the genuine advantages of PCs is that they can be found in dumpsters, on the side of the road, and at yard sales for a few dollars.

    If something is wrong with them, this is usually easily repaired; swapping out components from other free machines is rarely difficult and often fun. It's true that for them to be legal, a set of O/S CD-ROMS sometimes must be purchased, but this often brings the grand total to only about $50, a great deal less than the price of a reasonably modern Mac.

    (The only discarded or yard sale Macs I've ever encountered were far too old to be of any use.)

    I'm looking forward to encountering just such a found PC with this new operating system, primarily out of curiosity -- I have no use for its great new features but might find them entertaining.

    If forced by obsolescence -- the usual scenario -- to upgrade from XP before that time, I'm sure used or reconditioned machines will be readily available.

    The challenge will be deciding what to do with my fleet of old but functional machines.

    I could heave them or give them away, but maybe instead I'll install Linux on them.

  • Dave Keller

    So, MS is being hailed for adding features that Mac has been using for many years? Whatever.

  • Bob Ress

    Yes, the eye candy is nice, now hows about an article on how easy the upgrade is, and how well it works? Because it is, and it does.

  • Phreek Walsh

    A close friend of mine recieved a free copy of Windows 7 Ultimate for working at the Dublin launch yesterday. His review included the expressions "I'll never turn back!" and "I can finally forgive them for Vista!"
    After his commentary on the "fast and easy" installation, and the "ideal" new features, I'm very excited to get a first hand look ASAP!

  • Doug Urioste

    Anyone remember Windows ME (Millenium Edition)? Once bitten twice shy -- Vista drove me to convert my business and household to Apple and Macs. Windows 7 will need to be Windows 11 before I consider changing back. MS is in a no win situation for me - if Windows 7 is a smashing success, I will even be more enraged as I did not want to change over... but I have to tell you, I LOVE my macs... everything except for MS Excel which MS seems to purposely keep it inferior on Mac OS.
    -Signed an ex-Microsoft supporter

  • Lloyd Lemons

    All cool stuff, but does it hang-up? Can I work for more than 10 minutes without "technical difficulties?" Will it eliminate (or at least reduce) my need for technical intervention? I'm going mad with Vista! (help me please)