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Sidebar on display in next Vista preview

February's preview version of Windows update to include a panel housing mini applications. Images: Dashboards and widgets

As more computer users move to larger, wide-screen monitors, Microsoft is staking a claim to that added real estate.

Windows Vista, the update to the operating system due this year, will add a feature called Sidebar. Sidebar is a small panel at the side of the monitor that can be used to view photo slide shows, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds and other small programs, dubbed gadgets.

While DVD movies have popularized wide-screen displays, Windows chief Jim Allchin said there are a lot of uses for the extra pixels.


What's new:
February's preview version of Windows Vista will include all of the OS's planned features, including a panel housing mini-applications.

Bottom line:
The move is Microsoft's pitch to get more visibility on the desktop, among consumers and companies both.

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"That's why Sidebar is something important," Allchin, co-president of Microsoft's platform, products and services division, said in an interview last week. "You will be able to put it to the side and just watch it on the periphery, and the wide screen allows this."

Sidebar is one of a number of features that Microsoft has talked about as part of Vista, but has yet to include in external test versions. The next Community Technology Preview (CTP) release, which is planned for February, is slated to include all of Vista's features including Sidebar.

"This CTP that we are doing in this quarter will have all the features that we had planned to put in the product," Allchin said. Other features expected to debut in the February test version include a new migration tool aimed at making it easier for people moving their systems to Vista from Windows XP.

Microsoft is targeting the February test release at businesses, aiming to get early adopter companies to try out the software on a few hundred PCs each. A consumer-oriented test release, planned for the second quarter of this year, will be made available to "hundreds of thousands, maybe millions" of customers, Allchin said. The final version of Vista is slated to arrive in time to be on PCs sold in the 2006 holiday season.

Sidebar was part of the original Longhorn vision as first outlined by Microsoft at a developer conference in October 2003. However, the feature was absent from many test builds, leading to speculation that it had been scrapped. Recently though, it has been featured prominently in discussions of Vista features, including Chairman Bill Gates' keynote speech at last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.


The concept of having small programs to handle a variety of tasks is not new, said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg.

"It goes way back to when Borland had a program called sidekick for the PC," Gartenberg said. Apple Computer popularized the concept with the built-in desk accessories that came on a Mac, he said. "It made sense at a time when (one could) only run one program."

What makes it still compelling, even in the age of multiple open programs, is the ability to see information at a glance, without having to stop working in a primary document. That information could be anything from sales data to stock quotes to family photos.

"Keeping it persistently available is a pretty big deal," Gartenberg said. "I can position things so I can be working on my e-mail or word processing and still have the information available."

Although Sidebar is mainly seen as a consumer feature, Microsoft has talked up the tool as a way for workers to have fingertip access to key information such as graphical representations of real-time business data.

In addition, Allchin said it offers a nice way to provide alerts to people. These can be sent, for example, via RSS or gadgets, which are mini-applications that reside on the Sidebar.

"You can have nice--some people might say interruptions, or things that are bothering you," Allchin said. "On the other hand, it's a way to keep noticing what's happening in your business."

The notion of gadgets is similar in concept to the widget idea that Apple uses in the Dashboard feature of Mac OS X and in the Yahoo Widget Engine, which is based on the Konfabulator program Yahoo acquired in July. Google also has a very similar concept, which it also calls Sidebar, that is part of its Google Desktop download.

Microsoft hopes to spur use of gadgets well beyond the sidebar. In Vista, the same small applications can be used on the desktop display itself and also on the secondary display on the lid of some notebooks--a feature Microsoft has dubbed SideShow. Microsoft also wants people to run gadgets on their pages.

Like Yahoo and Apple, Microsoft has been courting developers, posting information on a special Web site.

The key is, in all three cases, that such add-ons are relatively easy to program.

"The technology to build these is fairly simple," Gartenberg said. "It doesn't require advanced development techniques."

Allchin said that other technology companies should also start planning for wide-screen monitors to become the norm.

"We think it is going to become standard on pretty much almost all monitors. It is just a matter of time," he said. "Web sites should be updated to be able to expand to take advantage of it, there's only some of them that do that now."