Robert McLaws: Windows Edition

Blogging about Windows since before Vista became a bad word

July 2006 - Posts

  • Speaking of Windows Media Center...

    Aaron Stebner, one of the guys from Media Center Sandbox, has a great hack for fixing the "Mini Guide" navigation in Vista's Media Center. A must have for anyone with an infared remote.
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  • Vista Needs More Time: The Entry I Didn't Want To Write

    I've been defending Microsoft's ship schedule for Windows Vista for quite some time. Up to this point, I've been confident that Vista would be at the quality level it needs to be by RC1 to make the launch fantastic. Having tested several builds between Beta 2 and today, I hate to say that I no longer feel that way.

    Beta 2 was a disappointment on many levels. It was nowhere near as stable as it should have been, and was a huge memory hog. Later builds have improved stability and performance, and have introduced visual tweaks and enhancements that make Vista feel more like a finished product. But several events are conspiring to make life a lot more difficult for beta testers, and I forsee problems if they are not addressed.

    • Fact: Microsoft is rapidly approaching check-in cutoff date for the Vista teams. According to one Microsoft employee, this date is "only a few weeks away". That means that any changes that need to be made after that date are extremely difficult to get in. If Vista is going to RTM in late October/early November, that means RC1 will be due out late August/early September. If you're a beta tester, that's probably a scary thought.
    • Observation: Several teams are scrambling to get code checked in on time. I hate to use the Media Center team as an example, because they're moving extremely fast and working very hard to get their product out the door. But I have to. Media Center has a ton of enhancements in Vista, and is being developed for technology that probably won't even be on the market by the time Vista ships. They are working like crazy to meet their deadlines, and I don't think that it can happen without sacrificing the quality of the product. Unless they plan on updating Windows Media Center frequently after RTM, it's just going to cause problems. But don't come down on that team... several events in the cable industry have hampered some of their work. And don't kid yourself into thinking that the WMC team is the only one scrambling. They're just the easiest example.
    • Observation: One door closes, another door opens. No, I'm not talking about opportunity here, I'm talking about issue resolutions causing new issues. I've been thoroughly impressed. When Beta 2 came out, I defended Microsoft against the people that said "XP was more stable at this point, Vista should be too". Back them, I didn't think that was the case. Now, I have to agree. The last beta should have been a lot more stable. The RC1 builds have improved dramatically, but my experience is still vastly different with each build. As some systems tighten up, others seem to come apart. For example, I had issues resuming from Hibernate in Beta 2. Those issues were resolved in later builds, but new ones arose in the latest build I've been testing. That shouldn't be happening.
    • Observation: Jim & Co have forgotten what "Release Candidate" means. A release candidate means "Hey, we think we're finished, and this is the build we'd like to put out there. Is it ready yet?" From there, testers sign off on it and say yes, or they say "no" and Microsoft does additional work. It should always follow a stable beta, which Beta 2 was not. It's not another CTP that goes out... this means that they're finished. Windows Vista is not ready yet, and I don't think Microsoft will have it ready by the end of the month. So Microsoft should not call it a "Release Candidate" if it is not seriously up for consideration as a candidate for release.

    Time For a Sanity Check
    Microsoft has been pushing it's developers too hard to meet this deadline, and Vista is too complicated to allow it to be reached. Many people will twist my words and construe Vista's complexity as a bad thing; it's not, just the nature of software development. But that means that new realities have to be addressed in new ways. So I have a proposal for solving this problem and getting Vista out the door in the first quarter, without sacrificing product quality to the God of Everyone Else's Expectations:

    • Step 1: Push the launch back 4-6 weeks and launch at the end of February. Yeah, you're going to get A LOT of flack for it. The stock price will probably drop a percent or two. The Slashdotters will go apeshit. But trust me, your long-term issues will be far worse than your short-term ones if the product is not up to par out of the gate.
    • Step 2: Don't defend it, just announce it. There's no point in trying to put a PR spin on it, because nobody is going to listen anyways. Let your thousands of beta testers cheer you for making the right decision, and tell Wall Street to go to hell. At this point, you have the strongest product lineup in a decade and the stock price hasn't moved, so getting Vista out the door on time isn't going to magically make things better.Your customers will be happier in the long term, and your decisions should be based on that, and not what the media says.
    • Step 3: Add another beta to the development cycle. That new window gives the team enough time to push back RC1 and add Beta 3 into the mix. This means that Beta 3 comes at the end of this month, RC1 comes at the middle of October, and RTM is Microsoft's last big accomplishment of 2006. That should give the world enough time to try out a much more stable version of the operating system, and see how it works in the real world. It will be shorter than most betas, but it's ok to be a little agile in that respect.
    • Step 4: Give the entire Windows team a week off. After Beta 3 releases, anyone who is not responsible for responding to security issues in released products should be given a week to relax, unwind, etc. Let them spend time with family, cause they probably won't see much of them between RC1 and RTM. Clear heads make happy coders. Oh yeah, except for management. They should take that week and figure out how to thin out the management staff when Steven Sinofsky takes over.
    • Step 5: Come back strong and release a great product. Enough said.

    What Would Beta 3 Accomplish?
    I think the first release candidate should be followed by a stable beta. Visual Studio 2005 Beta 2 was an incredibly stable product, even though it underwent major changes between Beta 2 and RC1. Beta 2 of Windows Vista was not usable in any meaningful way on a regular basis, and I uninstalled it after 10 days. I'm running Vista full time now, but not without still dealing with BSODs and other random BS. So here's what changing the current RC1 to Beta 3 and putting additional time into RC1 should allow Microsoft to focus on:

    • Fixing bug reports. Too many bugs are being closed as "by design" or "not reproducible", with barely any questions from Microsoft engineers on how to reproduce them. Developers should stop what they're doing and take three weeks on reproducing and resolving issues... not just the beta team, the WHOLE team.
    • Display driver stabilization. The entire WDDM team needs to finalize their work, and then go over and kick Nvidia's butt into gear. Seriously,  I mean the whole WDDM team needs to go over to Nvidia HQ and get the drivers fixed. Their display drivers have been nothing but a problem, and it's not getting better, despite new driver releases.
    • Improve general system stability. Microsoft has been making good progress on making Vista fast and stable, and it needs a bit more time to do so. I'd rather have a few more weeks to make it faster than wait for Windows Server 2007 before I get fast Vista bits.
    • Catch up time. Give the Media Center team and others time to let their industries catch up so the products they will support can be refined and finalized. (I'm talking about a specific product here, but can't mention it specifically due to NDAs).

    In Conclusion
    That's what needs to be done, IMO, to make the Windows Vista truly the best version of Windows ever. Windows Management (that means you, Jim): Give your people a little more time to get it right. You'll be lambasted for it. But it doesn't matter what 125 people in the media will say. 700 million Windows users will thank you.

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  • IE7 Distribution and Future Development

    Brandon LeBlanc and I had a chance yesterday to talk to Gary Schare, IE's Product Manager, and he gave me the lowdown on how IE7 will be distributed, as well as information on plans for future IE development.

    RWM: OK lets see. IE7 Beta 3 just came out, so you're not going to announce another build yet. RTM isn't till next quarter, so you're not releasing it early. So what is your big announcement? Is Microsoft buying Firefox?

    GS: (laughing) No, although that is pretty funny. Actually, we're announcing our plans to distribute IE7 to customers after it RTMs next quarter.

    RWM: Gotcha. Alright, give me the lowdown.

    GS: Well, basically we're going to be distributing IE7 as a "High Priority" update through the Windows Update and Microsoft Update platforms shortly after RTM. But we're not forcing IE7 on anyone, so for consumers, we're going to override your default settings, and show a start screen that asks for your concent. We'll give the user three options "Install | Don't Install | Ask Me Later". And for the record, the screen you'll see has no default action, you'll have to explicitly select an option.

    (Screenshots below)

    IE7 update balloon tip

    IE7 Automatic Updates dialog

    IE7 Final Welcome screen

    RWM: You're not going to automatically take over my desktop at 2am the next morning?

    GS: Nope.

    RWM: I'm sure people will like that. So that's for consumers, but what about businesses? They need to deploy IE7 on their own time.

    GS: Exactly. That's why we're also putting out an enterprise blocker toolkit, which will hide the update from systems with the proper registry key.

    RWM: Kind of like you guys did with XP Service Pack 2.

    GS: Right, but there are two major differences from what we did in XPSP2. First, we announced the availablilty of the tool at almost the same time as the service pack, so companies had to scramble to install it before we updated their system... which as bad. Second, the XPSP2 blocker had an expiration date, which means that some companies had to roll out the service pack before they were finished testing.

    RWM: Yeah, that was a bad deal.

    GS: Right. So this time around, we're using the same mechanism as before, but we're rolling out the tool today, even though the product doesn't ship 'till next quarter. That should give companies plenty of time to test it and deploy it in their networks. Second, the blocker has no expiration date, so companies are free to roll out IE7 at their own pace, not ours.

    Brandon LeBlanc: So why were you guys so aggressive with the XPSP2 rollout.

    GS: Well, XPSP2 was a lifecycle replacement for XP and XPSP1, so we needed to get it out there... but IE7 does not replace IE6. IE6 will continue to be patched for another 5 years or so.

    RWM: Gotcha. So when are we gonna see the next public build of IE7?

    GS: Well, we're expecting one more public build between now and September. That will be a Release Candidate. It will be some minor cosmetic changes, but nothing major. Unless we have a showstopper that we want the public to test fixes for, that will be the last release before we RTM in Q4 2006.

    RWM: That sounds good. So you guys don't get to rest now... what's happening with the next version of IE?

    GS: Well, we're already working on the next release. Our plan at this point is to roll a new release every 18 months, on a Major-Minor-Major schedule. So the release we're working on next will be less focused on the underlying platform, and more focused on cosmentic changes.

    BL: So will that be a point release?

    GS: I can't say anything definite yet, but I expect that it will be IE7-point-something.

    RWM: When would we expect to see bits for this next version?

    GS: You'd probably see the first beta beginning next spring, although that's pretty fluid of course.

    RWM: Of course. Well Gary, thanks for yout time.

    GS: No problem.

    Blocker Toolkit Download: http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?linkid=65788
    IE7 Blocker Toolkit FAQ: http://www.microsoft.com/technet/updatemanagement/windowsupdate/ie7blockertoolfaq.mspx
    Read
    more about Microsoft's IE distribution plans on the IE Blog.

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  • Symantec Spreading Vista FUD To Manipulate Stock Price

    I was looking over the trackbacks for my post on Symantec earlier today, when I came upon this entry at Barrons.com's TechTraderDaily blog. Eric Savitz reports that Merril Lynch has downgraded their rating of the stock to Neutral ahead of an earnings report tomorrow, which sent the stock price tumbling (my previous entry was linked in the comments, but has since been removed). Analyst Edward Maguire gave five reasons for the change (pay attention to the last one, emphasis mine):

  • Macro outlook for IT security spending appears to have deteriorated as lingering challenges from enterprise sales reorganization could slow efforts to capture market share.
  • Contribution from newer product area (endpoint security, vulnerability management, anti-spyware) [are] unlikely to offset slowing growth from maturing anti-virus and perimeter security products.
  • Consumer [sector] likely to continue to face competitive pressures, with increased competition significantly reducing opportunity for further price increases and contribution from new products not expected until 2007.
  • Combined products from the merger [with Veritas] not likely to come to market until 2007.
  • Microsoft’s entry into consumer and enterprise security, as well as potential security improvements from the delayed Vista OS, will overhand investor sentiment at the very least pending greater clarity into market impact.
  • Based on this report today, Symantec shares were down 1% on the day in regular trading, and lost another 1.23% in after-hours trading. This stock has been declining for the past year, and will only continue to do so. And, it looks like I was right: Symantec *IS* trying to use old and already-corrected Vista flaws to bolster investor confidence in its product lines ahead of disappointing earnings.

    Is it a coincidence that these papers came out a week before their earnings report? Not likely...

    In related news, Dave Goldsmith from Matasano has an interesting counterpoint on the Symantec papers. He thinks they validate Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative. He even throws down some charts to prove it. He would know a bit about Symantec, he ran their Security Academy, and was also the co-founder of @stake.

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  • Does Something Have to be Novel to be Revolutionary?

    Two articles got me thinking about this today. One was the ASLR article by Michael Howard that I linked to earlier today, and another was one I just got finished reading from Slashdot. The exchange basically always goes like this:

    Pro-Microsoft Person: Windows has a new feature, [A], that will revolutionize the way [Administrators|Users|Whoever] do [Whatever].
    Anti-Microsoft Person: Ugh... hey retard! We've had that in [Insert other OS here] for years!

    The question I have is, does an idea have to be brand new to the world (novel) to be revolutionary? Or phrased in a different way, is something that affects only a small number of people still revolutionary? OK sure, Ubuntu Linux has an imaging format. OK, great. Ubuntu Linux has like 600 users, and it's a good bet that 99% of them are techically oriented people who don't mind endless tweaking of components.

    Windows has an install base of 700 million computers. So when you apply a concept to software like that, it has the potential to affect a lot more people. So when you copy one hardware-agnostic file to the hard drive, unpack it, and apply stuff over the top, how is that not revolutionary to the majority of world business and consumers who use and maintain Windows? Can someone make that statement without offending [insert small-market-share OS here]?

    So, which is more revolutionary, something that affects 600 people, or something that affects 700 million? Or put another way, Can changing the way group X does function A be accomplished without group Y having to make themselves feel better by pointing out that they did it first? Microsoft never said "Hey, we invented this stuff, so neener neener neener!"

    And while I'm at it, why does the Slashdot crowd always have to get so defensive all the time? Many times, these concepts are new to anyone that doesn't have a computer science degree from a tech university. Why can't they take pride in the fact that the concept is valid enough for Microsoft to use it too, meaning more people use it, and the wolrd is better off?

    Questions, questions... too many questions...

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  • Vista's Got Game

    GameSpot writer James Yu has a very interesting overview of the games that come with Windows Vista. Instead of showing side-by-side low-res screenshots, they use a nice mouseover to show the new games versus their Win 3.1/95/XP counterparts. A simple effect, I know, but a nice one nonetheless.

    Personally, I think the new games are neat. I'm addicted to playing Vista's solitaire on my TabletPC.

    Via GamerScoreBlog

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  • Symantec: Crying Wolf on Windows Vista

    Symantec is so pissed at Microsoft for competing against it with OneCare, and for reducing the need for their software through the security advances in Vista, that instead of innovating on top of the Vista platform, they've resorted to spreading FUD to keep themselves in the news. Cause in their minds, if they're in the news, they're still relevant.

    The first flaw was in the networking stack. Symantec sees the advances in Vista as a problem, because "Microsoft has removed a large body of tried and tested code and replaced it with freshly written code, complete with new corner cases and defects." Hmm, I wonder why Symantec prefers the old code over the new code. It couldn't be that the old networking stack was Symantec's moneypot for the last 7 years. It couldn't be that new code means Symantec researchers have to start from scratct to build their next gen security suite. No, it's gotta be because that code was lightning fast and perfectly suited to take us into the next decade of computing. Yeah, that's it.

    Now, it's curious that the article makes itself irrelevant by mentioning that the flaws were in the February CTP (5270) and that they have since been fixed. Symantec even admitted that the flwas weren't there in later builds. So tell me again... what exactly is the problem? Symantec can't use the argument that "because it's new it's insecure", when that's exactly the reasoning Firefox uses to say that it is secure. The industry can't have it both ways.... except of course, if the 'enemy' is Microsoft.

    The latest "flaw" stems from a specially crafted ActiveX control that could fool UAC into elevating privileges. Forget the fact that since February, the IE team has disabled ActiveX by default, and forced the user to approve any ActiveX control that is installed. Let's also forget for the moment that the CTP in question was over 4 months and 200 builds ago. Hell, the difference between 5384 (May) and 5472 (July) is enough to make me do cartwheels. Gosh guys, this is a real problem. Quick, someone get me a copy of a Symantec security product... my Vista beta system's not secure!!!

    Why is this allowed to be news? Any tech reporter with a teaspoon of brain cells still functioning (hey, the 70's affected a LOT of people) knows that fixed flaws in beta builds from four months ago are not news. That's why it's a BETA, stupid. But see, News.com doesn't just report the news, they try to influence the industry. And nothing stirs up page traffic like a bullshit story between a software company and its former housekeeper.

    Look, Symantec... let me level with you. You're done. You're products do nothing but confuse users and slow their systems to a crawl. The only one that is worth anything is your overpriced Ghost package... and even THAT is threatened by Vista's CompletePC. So take a page from McAfee's playbook: shut up and innovate. But something tells me that Symantec will continue to spend more time spreading FUD than writing code. Because those who scream the loudest are usually on their way out.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to finish my report on the insecurities in Longhorn build 4074. You know, the one they released at PDC 2003. If flaws from four months ago make news, flaws from three years ago must be worth money.

    UPDATE: The fact that News.com didn't get my comment for the Vista Views column was apparently because my cell phone was broken, not because of the editors there. So I removed one of my comments in the second and third paragraph.

    UPDATE2: Michael Howard has a technical discussion on the big picture of security in Windows Vista on his blog.

    UPDATE3: I think I was right...

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  • What's New In Windows Vista?

    A LOT, according to Wikipedia. It's not quite as exhaustive or verbose as the Windows Vista Product Guide, but a good read nonetheless.
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  • User Account Control, Windows CardSpace, and the Secure Desktop

    Wanna know why you desktop grays out with User Account Control and Windows CardSpace under Windows Vista? Or why you can't click on any of the windows behind a UAC prompt? Well, both technologies are built on top of the Secure Desktop, which also powers the Logon screen and what you see when you give your computer the three-fingered salute. Secure Desktop runs in an entirely separate process from Explorer.exe (the Windows Shell), and uses a number of programming techniques that make it extremely difficult to plug into.

    The end result is when UAC prompts you do do something, you're actually not on your desktop anymore. You're in a process that no other application can get in front of to fake you out. To ensure that the user isn't shell-shocked by the change, Secure Desktop takes a picture of the desktop as it was just before the prompt appeared, applies a gray shading, and then uses that picture as the Secure Desktop background. That's why you can't click on any of the windows behind the dialog either: they're not actual windows, just a picture of what you were previously doing.

    So there you have it. Secure Desktop at a glance. You can read more about it on Microsoft TechNet.

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  • Virtual PC 2007: Where Is The News?

    Last week, I posted about the fact that Microsoft hasn’t put out a new version of Virtual PC since 2004. A few days later, Microsoft said they were making a “major announcement” about Virtual PC (though the timing was not related to my bringing it up). I was hoping for tons of details, but it basically amounted to “If you paid fora copy at one point, you’re SOL, cause Virtual PC 2004 is now free.” It was like,“Oh, here… We’ll make it free. That will distract you from questions on what features VPC 2007 will have, or more importantly, when it will ship.”

    Don’t get me wrong, it added some more clarity to the whole “VPC Express” debacle, but it was long on hype and short on details. Compared to VMWare, Virtual PC performance is TERRIBLE. To make matters worse, all of Microsoft’s virtualization efforts have been focused solely on the server realm, because that’s where the businesses are. But lots of customers use Virtual PC too, and we shouldn’t have to install Virtual Server 2005 R2 over the top of Virtual PC 2004 to see improved performance.

    Microsoft’s announcement was an anti-event. The Virtual PC Team needs to talk about featureset before they can begin to fill the void that two years of silence has created.

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  • Windows Vista Bug Analysis, Part 2: The Aftermath

    Read Part One: Initial Analysis

    So it’s been about two week since I got a wild hair up my butt and decided to tempt Microsoft’s tolerance of me. I really tried to take the Microsoft fanboy side of me out of the equation, and listened to what the numbers had to say about the state of Vista affairs. I’ve been hooked on CSI as of late, and Grissom’s question is always “What does the evidence tell you?” Having been a self-appointed Vista cheerleader for some time, I had to know for myself.

    It was a huge risk, to be honest with you. I’ve had the MVP program jump down my throat for far less innocuous comments, so I had no idea how Microsoft was going to react to this. But I consulted with a lot of people (including a few nameless MS employees) about the ramifications, and the general consensus was that the information was worth sharing with everyone.

    Microsoft’s reaction surprised me. I wouldn’t go so far to say that they “wanted” focus on that data, but they haven’t asked me to take it down. In fact, two Microsoft employees linked to it: Nick White from the Windows Vista marketing team (There was a pretty heated exchange in the comments on Nick's blog, and I've definitely seen similar arguments on both sides of the fence), and Paul Donnelly.

    Paul Donnelly is well known inside the Windows Vista Technical Beta program as the man who runs the show. He has the unenviable job of being the man stuck squarely in the middle between (sometimes frustrated) beta testers and the software developers. In his introduction to the blogosphere, (I’d love to say that my post prompted him to start blogging, but I doubt I’m able to make that claim) he addressed many of the conclusions I came to, and gave a wealth of new information regarding Windows Vista beta feedback statistics.

    So the data accomplished what I had hoped: it started a great conversation. Lots of people were already talking about it, and then Paul had some more accurate info to interject. I had expected that the article would get picked up by the English-speaking tech press, but I had no idea how many foreign-language bloggers/online tech mags would pick it up. In fact, out of the 8,500 page views it’s seen, only about 1,000 of the incoming clicks are coming from English-speaking posts. That’s pretty cool.

    At any rate, later this week I’ll dive into that new information, and draw some new conclusions on the state of Windows Vista development. I’ll also address up concerns I’ve heard about (and have myself) regarding the deceiving nature of the feedback numbers game. Stay tuned.

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  • I Hate It When That Happens...

    Of course, I take my first real vacation in a while, and what does Microsoft do? Put out a new freakin build of Vista. Dang it! I can't download 3GB over a Starbucks 802.11B connection! Guess I'll just have to live vicariously through screenshots till next week...

    The newsgroups are reporting that the Nvidia drivers have been overhauled in this build. Maybe I'll give it another run on my Tablet when I get home (I know, I'm a glutton for punishment. I can hope, can't I?)

    In the meantime, Jensen Harris rounds out my coverage of Office 2007 UI last week with a look at RTM will look like on Vista Aero.

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  • Meet Windows Vista's User Experience Manager

    Speaking of Microsoft Design, did you know that Microsoft has a Group Manager responsible for the User Experience in Windows? His name is Tjeerd Hoek (pronounced "Cheered", it says so on his business card). He's probably one of the more prolific speakers at Microsoft, and if you ever get the pleasure of signing your life away, he'll show you things that will blow your mind. His goal: to make you happy to use Windows again.

    "You can’t invest huge amounts of effort and resources in product quality aspects like robustness, reliability, performance, and functionality, and then not reflect those same qualities in the way people experience the product. It's important to us that beyond utility, there is an emotional connection, such that people feel great about using Windows, and they feel Windows reflects them in a positive and authentic way."

    So when there's something about the UI that drives you crazy, you can bet that Tjeerd is already on the case.

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  • Hints of Windows Vista RC1 & Office Interface Changes

    There was an enormous jump in build numbers between Beta 2 (5384) and the latest interim build (5456). That's because Microsoft didn't stop working while they were preparing Beta 2. If you've seen Build 5456 (you'll have to find them yourself, I don't link to interim build screenshots), you'll notice that there are some enhancements to the UI all over the place. Having seen a couple newer builds than this, I can tell you that even more sweeping UI changes are on the way.

    Brandon points to Long Zheng, who compares screenshots from Microsoft Design's Windows page with screenshots from Beta 2 builds to draw the conclusion that more UI goodness is on the way for RC1.While I agree with some of the comments that the Start Menu looks a bit more cluttered now, most of the other changes are real solid. And I love the new Office 2007 icons too. They're edgy...3 edges to be exact. I've never seen Microsoft do an icon style like that before.

    Long also posted about updates to the Office 2007 UI, but he missed something on Microsoft Design's Office page. Looks like the three themes for Office 2007 are finalized. Note they've lightened the Office Start button, and cleaned up the Shortcut bar.

    Dare I say that Vista + Office 2007 = Sexy? Now if only MS would drop new Vista and Office builds in the next few days so we could check these changes out...

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  • Beta 2 Still Available For Download?!?

    I'm willing to bet anyone $20 that Microsoft will take this page down after I link to it, but as of right now, Microsoft still has the landing page for the Windows Vista Beta 2 CPP online. You can also still download the ISO under "Use Your Own Download Manager". I started downloading it, just for kicks, and I was done in about an hour.

    You'll have to get your own key... but if you want it, get it before it's gone.

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