New Windows 9 rumors: Can the charms, clone the Desktop

Independently confirmed Windows 9 rumors have Microsoft dropping Charms Bar and adding 'virtual Desktops,' an obscure feature from XP and Win7

Curious about Windows 9? Recent revelations give us the beginnings of an idea of what new features to expect. For starters, there's talk of eliminating the Charms Bar entirely, which poses some interesting interface questions for fingers-first tablet users. There's also talk of support for multiple "virtual desktops" that allow users to create different desktops and juggle among them.

Few people seem to realize that Microsoft built virtual desktops into Windows XP and improved on the implementation in Windows 7. Nobody seems to use the desktops nowadays, but they could become one of the key new features in Windows 9 (or Windows vNext or Windows Threshold).

First, the Charms Bar: Earlier this week, the WinBeta website broke the rumor that the Charms Bar would disappear on the desktop side of Windows 9:

We must stress that we're talking about the Charms for the desktop only. We haven't heard too much about the Charms bar for tablets, however we believe the way they are accessed won't be changing from its current form.

ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley confirmed the rumor from her (presumably independent) sources.

My sources say the Charms Bar will be going away completely for all desktop, laptop, and tablet users with Threshold.

That's a big step for the pointy crowd, but it eliminates the conceptual hurdles of running Metro apps in Desktop windows. (Consider: How could you implement charms in a Desktop window? Looks messy, doesn't it?)

Tom Warren, at The Verge, trumped them both:

The Verge can confirm current builds of Windows Threshold, which is expected to be named Windows 9, do not include the Charms Bar.

Nice to know that somebody has access to current builds of Windows 9.

The Charms Bar has always been an anachronism. Aside from the cutesy name (reminds me of a magically delicious breakfast cereal), the functions embodied in the hidden bar are basically lame. Search never did much -- even less now that Windows 8.1 Update 1 has a search icon on the Metro Start screen. (Yes, some Metro apps rely on the Search charm -- lousy, undiscoverable design.) Share was tied up in the well-intentioned but rarely understood concept of contracts, and it was never as simple and clean as Copy. Start replicates the Start button or key -- useless. Devices continues to confound me because it doesn't do anything with most devices. Settings should have its own tile, as in iOS or Android. The sadist who declared that I have to swipe from the right, tap Settings, then monkey around with the upper-middle icon at the bottom of the Settings pane to turn down the blasted volume should be drawn and quartered.

I can see about a million ways to implement the charms that are better for both tappers and mousers. Most likely Microsoft will stick something in the new title bar that will go along with every good Metro app. With the nearly undiscoverable black bar gone, there's one less thing that you "have to know" by osmosis in order to get Windows to work. Good riddance.

Virtual desktops are another story altogether. Brad Sams at Neowin broke the story earlier this week:

The feature works by creating multiple "Desktops" where you can keep open applications and then switch between the desktops to view other applications. For example, you can create a virtual desktop that has Outlook open and then other Desktop with your Web browser, both apps are running on their own Desktop to allow you to focus on either web browsing, or email. ... The feature, which is already on other platforms like Ubuntu and OS X is currently being tested and is said to have similar functionality to that of Ubuntu. You can activate the Desktops with a button on the taskbar (subject to change) and there are keyboard shortcuts that let you jump between active Desktops.

ZDNet's Foley confirmed the feature, again from her (presumably independent) sources:

I'm not clear whether the virtual Desktops functionality will be clearly and readily available to all Threshold users or if Microsoft will make it more of a hidden feature discoverable by power users.

Apparently people have forgotten, but Windows XP had a similar capability, which could be brought to life by installing an app, er, a program distributed by Microsoft as one of the XP PowerToys. Those of you who are sufficiently long in the tooth may recall that the XP PowerToys were basically a series of skunkworks programs that enhanced Windows XP, built by Microsoft employees, distributed by Microsoft, but never officially supported by Microsoft. The XP Virtual Desktop Manager let you build and switch among four separate XP Desktops. There's an excellent description of the Microsoft-released product, with screenshots, on the HowToGeek website.

The Windows 7 virtual Desktop program I've used and recommend -- the Sysinternals Desktop -- also comes from Microsoft and arrived with Mark Russinovich and the Sysinternals team, which Microsoft acquired in 2006. Like the XP Virtual Desktop Manager, you can set up to four Desktops and switch among them by clicking on a taskbar icon or using a customizable key combination. Sysinternals Desktop has a number of known limitations:

Windows doesn't provide a way to move a window from one Desktop object to another, and because a separate Explorer process must run on each desktop to provide a taskbar and start menu, most tray applications are only visible on the first Desktop. Further, there is no way to delete a Desktop object, so Desktops does not provide a way to close a Desktop, because that would result in orphaned windows and processes. The recommended way to exit Desktops is therefore to log off.

It'll be very interesting to see if the Windows 9 virtual Desktops behave similarly. Perhaps Russinovich's taking time off the celebrity book circuit to lend a hand with the Threshold dev team.

There's an entire industry of Windows virtual Desktop add-ins -- Dexpot, Finestra, mdesktop, Virtual Dimension, VirtuaWin, and others -- many of which have fallen into disrepair. Virtual Desktops are ancient in the Linux world, venerable on the Mac, and nothing new in Windows. We'll have to wait and see whether Windows 9 includes a compelling twist.

Of course, everyone still expects Windows 9 to include a live tile Start menu on the Desktop and resizable Metro app windows on the desktop, per Terry Myerson's demo at the Build conference.

Ain't it kind of funny that we start getting corroborated rumors about Windows 9 features shortly after Microsoft shot a hole in all of the Windows 8.1 Update 2 speculation? Microsoft's PR firm Waggener Edstrom hasn't lost its touch.

This story, "New Windows 9 rumors: Can the charms, clone the Desktop," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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