Ballmer sets loose Windows 7 public beta

Rumors proved true as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off the Windows 7 beta during his Wednesday night keynote at CES.

Among the new things in Windows 7 are an updated interface, including a redesigned task bar; tools to make home networking simpler; and a reworking of the User Account Control feature, which annoyed many Vista users with its constant prompts. It also aims to give better performance than Vista and supports a touch-screen interface, though few PCs are likely to use that feature at first.

Ballmer will announce that there are now 100 million active Vista users, and that an additional 80 million licenses have been sold but not yet activated, many to corporations. Few would call Vista a great success, however. Poor performance on all but the most powerful PCs, a lack of backwards compatibility and some annoying interface features have caused many to stick with Windows XP and await Windows 7.

TechARP.com, a tech enthusiast Web site, reported earlier this week that Microsoft will offer free or discounted Windows 7 upgrades to people who buy a Vista PC after July 1. That news, which Microsoft has not confirmed, is a sign that the company plans to ensure Windows 7 can run on a broad range of today's PC hardware, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

"They are trying to focus on the fundamentals and make sure it runs well on today's hardware, rather than looking a couple of years ahead as they did with Vista," he said. He expects a further public beta before the final Windows 7 ships, though Microsoft wouldn't confirm that.

Ballmer will also announce that Windows Live Essentials, a set of hosted productivity applications, is now out of beta and available for broad use. Live Essentials includes applications like Windows Live Messenger, Live Mail, Live Writer and Live Photo Gallery.

In addition, a new deal with Facebook will include its status updates with the other social-networking applications on the Windows Live home page, which Microsoft is trying to make a hub for Internet users.

The partnerships with Dell, Verizon and Facebook are significant for Microsoft as it tries to compete better with Google, Rosoff said. "For Live Search in particular, it's an important way to get these services out to more people," he said.

Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft's entertainment division, will tout strong sales of Microsoft's Xbox 360 and say there are now 17 million active members on Xbox live.

He'll announce an easy-to-use game construction kit, called Kodu, that will allow every-day Xbox users to design their own games. Due in March, it will let people trade these games with other Xbox users, but not sell them for money, Beilinson said.

Bach will also unveil two new games in Microsoft's hugely popular Halo franchise, including the first Halo game rated for a teen audience.

As in previous years, attempts at comedy are probably also on the menu. Past years have included pre-recorded skits in which Gates dressed up as Harry Potter and, last year, one where he was packing up his desk and moping over his last day at work.

With the outlook so bleak for the economy, the consumer electronics industry here may appreciate all the cheer it can get.

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James Niccolai

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