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Windows Sidebar Makes a Comeback

Microsoft's on-again, off-again Windows Sidebar feature, a prominent new interface element that could make it into the Windows Vista desktop, is definitely on again.

The Sidebar user interface element got a big boost this week when Microsoft vowed at the Professional Developers Conference 2005 in Los Angeles that it would debut for testers in an upcoming Vista Community Technology Preview.

In most demonstrations so far, Microsoft has presented the Sidebar as a column along the right-hand border of the screen that is wider than the Taskbar. The plan is for Microsoft and third-party developers to create mini-applications, called "gadgets," that live in the Sidebar and present users with real-time data and quick access to frequently-used functionality. Examples might include an RSS reader, a media player interface and a search box.

Microsoft previewed the Sidebar two years ago at its Professional Developers Conference 2003 along with dozens of other building blocks, elements and features of the then-Longhorn, now Vista operating system.

Earlier this year at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Microsoft signaled that the Sidebar had been dropped, and the feature was notably absent from the Windows Vista Beta 1 release in July. Sources close to Microsoft said the Sidebar hadn't gotten far enough along in the Trustworthy Computing security code reviews to make the cut. The Sidebar also wasn't ready in time for the Windows Vista September Community Technology Preview, which Microsoft unveiled this week. Microsoft said at the PDC that it will release CTPs for Vista about once per month.

A move by Google Inc. in August increased the pressure on Microsoft to either claim or lose the desktop real estate that the Sidebar would occupy. Google released a public beta of Google Desktop 2, which greatly expanded Google's Desktop Search tool with a resizable and moveable vertical window that Google also called the Sidebar. The feature can be used to aggregate e-mail messages, display stock prices, personalize news headlines, display weather reports and pull RSS feeds.

Although the Microsoft Sidebar isn't available in the September CTP, Microsoft has a screenshot of the feature available. In the image, the Sidebar takes advantage of the Aero Glass interface of Vista, with its transparency and other sophisticated visual enhancements. Gadgets hang over the side of the Sidebar, making the Sidebar look more like an anchor for the gadgets than a container for them.

Windows Vista Side Bar
[Click on image for larger view.]

Windows Vista Side Bar
Source: Microsoft.

In Microsoft's screenshot, the gadgets in the Sidebar include a search box, an e-mail icon showing the number of unread messages, a clock face, a photo, an RSS reader box, a media player control wheel and a recycle bin.

During a keynote demo on Tuesday, Chris Capossela, Microsoft corporate vice president in the Information Worker Product Management Group, encouraged attendees to begin creating gadgets.

"We expect lots of you guys to build tons of gadgets, this is a fantastic platform to build on top of. I'm going to bring up the gadget gallery here, and you can see that we've built the Windows Media Player gadget. I'll just double-click on that to add it to my Sidebar, and it is a full-fledged platform. You can use everything from DHTML and script all the way up to 'Avalon,' or the Windows Presentation Foundation, to build very rich mini-applications that live right here in the Sidebar," Capossela said.

Microsoft is also using the term gadgets for the mini-applications that will appear in the SideShow. Formerly called Auxiliary Display, SideShow is the miniature screen and control buttons that computer manufacturers will put on the outside of laptops or on stand-alone computer monitors. For example, the SideShow will allow a powered-down laptop to still display appointments or e-mails on an external display.

"Between the Sidebar and the SideShow, we've got two fantastic platforms for you to build gadgets for," Capossela said.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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