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Vista success hinges on developers

There's a fair bit of eye candy, but the real benefits will become evident when programmers take advantage of technology under the hood. Images: Developers take advantage of Vista

There's a reason Steve Ballmer runs around screaming about developers.

When Windows Vista has its mainstream launch next week, much of the attention will be on what users can expect out of the box. But perhaps more important to its ultimate success are a host of new technologies that are built in to Vista, but only come alive once applications are written that take advantage of them.

Included in this camp are a new peer-to-peer file-sharing service, a new graphics technology, and a built-in system for searching and tagging information. Some early programs offer a hint of these abilities, but many applications that really will harness Vista are still in the early development stages or have yet to be written.

Jay Roxe, a group product manager in Microsoft's developer division, said that the company is seeing a lot of new applications from users who wouldn't normally be considered software developers, such as The New York Times--with its Times Reader software--and apparel maker The North Face.

But it takes more time for those with existing products, he said.

"There are a lot of people that have existing code bases that will evolve their applications to take advantage of Vista over time, some more rapidly than others," he said.

Among the first programs to get a full Vista makeover is one of the oldest consumer titles, The Print Shop. Its developer, Riverdeep, has spent the last year completely rewriting the more than 20-year-old program to be based around Vista's new graphics engine, known as Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). Another early adopter of Vista is Yahoo, which has detailed its plans for a Vista-specific version of Yahoo Messenger that uses WPF to create a much more dynamic-looking messaging program.

Startups are also getting in on the act--for example, San Francisco-based iBloks, which uses the new graphics engine for its Web-based product, allows users to quickly make movies out of their photos, digital video clips, music and other media. The company is using the new presentation tools to generate three-dimensional movies.

"We are really excited about what it has been able to do," said iBloks CEO Julia Miller, who in a past job was a director for Microsoft's Xbox Live effort. "We just see kind of the next level of beautiful graphics on a computer. In our case, we take those graphics and make them available across devices."

While some companies are well ahead with Vista-optimized software, others may take months or even years to appear. In part, that's because developers don't want to target a new operating system until a significant part of its users are running the new software.

At this point, many developers are focusing on making sure that their programs will merely run on Vista, rather than adding new capabilities. Such is the case with Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements from Adobe Systems.

Adobe releases its consumer photo and video editing programs on an annual basis, in time for the holidays. So when Photoshop Elements 5 and Premiere Elements 3 shipped last year, there was no effort to make them Vista-ready. "At that time, Vista wasn't ready, not even really ready to develop for," said Mike Iampietro, senior product manager for those titles.

Adobe will have free downloadable updates shortly that allow the products to work with Vista, but that's about it. "The thrust there has not been to leverage new technologies," Iampietro said. "It's just to ensure that customers that (buy PCs) with Vista preloaded are able to use our products."

For the next version, the company will start to look at what Vista-specific features might find their way into the products.

By contrast, Vista's new technologies provided developers at Riverdeep a good reason to start over. Although The Print Shop has evolved plenty from its early days of groaning out banners on dot-matrix printers, it still has plenty of code that dates back to the mid-1990s.

"The core technology landscape has changed a lot," said Declan Fox, who handles technical development for the product. Riverdeep has opted to produce an all-new program, called The Print Shop Zoom, relying heavily on Microsoft technologies including the .Net Framework 3.0, which is built into Vista and downloadable for Windows XP users.

In doing so, Fox said, his company was able to tap into the new XPS print technology and other aspects of Vista. Being able to harness Microsoft's work made it worth the added time that his programming team had to invest in learning new methods. There were a "few initial hurdles," he said, but added that things are working out pretty well and the company hopes to have its new software available via its Web site by February and in stores by April.

Creators of professional programs have a much harder time just starting over, as Riverdeep did. With Photoshop, for example, Adobe aims to keep the program looking modern, but wants to keep the controls and palettes in the places people expect rather than overhauling the user interface.

John Nack, a senior product manager for Photoshop, said that the company doesn't want to change things in a way that would force its users to forsake the hundreds or thousands of hours of muscle memory they have built up in the current generation of products. Plus, the company places a high priority on making sure its software title maintains a similar look and feel across Macs and PCs.

"To some extent, that's a different priority than maybe the OS vendors have," he said. "For us, even the placement of 'close' boxes--whether it is in the left side of the palette or the right side--it can trigger a reaction."

Adobe has released a test version of Adobe Photoshop CS3, the next version of the program, which will support Vista. Nack said the program isn't really written specifically for Vista. "If somebody is moving to Vista, I think CS3 is going to be a great fit," he said. "I wouldn't say that you necessarily should upgrade (to Vista) because there is some particular feature we are leveraging."

However, Nack said the new Photoshop does benefit from some of Vista's overall performance improvements such as faster loading of applications. "It's nice we get an extra kick from Vista there," he said.

The company is also careful when it comes to architectural changes, even those that aren't visible to the customer.

"If this was 1999 we'd all have stock ticker gadgets. This being 2007, I think we're much more likely to have weather and traffic."
--Jay Roxe, group product manager, Microsoft

One of the technologies that Microsoft has been working for years to bring into Windows for years is support for 64-bit computing. The company introduced a 64-bit version of Windows XP a couple of years ago, but it remains a niche product.

Nack said that Adobe would have to see considerable performance gains to justify the effort needed to create a 64-bit version of Photoshop.

"It's not clear to us at this point that it will (be worth the effort), especially when you consider the work involved," Nack said.

The company is already straining to restructure its software for better use the additional processor cores that are becoming standard in PCs. "Making sure the cores aren't going to waste--that's a big challenge for us," Nack said.

Some of the best uses of new features just take time, Microsoft's Roxe said. A good example of that is the "People Near Me" peer-to-peer engine. Microsoft's own MeetingSpace program offers an early example. But the real test will come as developers start to create new ideas that weren't possible before such technology was built into the operating system.

Vista is also creating some new real estate for programmers, in particular the Sidebar that sits on the side of a Vista screen and houses widgets. Roxe also sees promise in its SideShow technology, basically small secondary displays that sit on the outside of a notebook or on a keyboard and offer notifications for appointments, incoming e-mail, and so on. Because SideShow has to be built into new hardware, it may take some time before there are enough people with it to attract significant developer efforts.

"It will be a little bit longer until end users see it, but the sidebar runs right out of the box," Roxe said. He noted that developers are already creating a lot of Sidebar gadgets, in part because the tiny applications are easy to write.

"If this was 1999 we'd all have stock ticker gadgets," he said. "This being 2007, I think we're much more likely to have weather and traffic."

Software makers that write large programs, such as sales force automation or other business programs, also can use a sidebar gadget to complement their existing products, offering a quick snapshot of data without needing to open up the full program or shift windows.

Roxe said he is hopeful that Microsoft's focus on security with Vista will ultimately free developers to spend more time on their creative efforts.

"Since we've reduced the attack surface area, developers have to spend less time worrying about protecting against attacks, which gives them more time to focus on the real purpose of their application."