The next version of Microsoft Windows, the software that defines the computing experience for most people, will nag users much less than its much-maligned predecessor, Vista. PC users will be able to begin testing the new edition early next year.
The world's largest software maker also is making Word, Excel and other key elements of Office — its flagship "productivity" programs — able to run in a Web browser. The move is meant to help confront rivals such as Google Inc. that offer free word processing and spreadsheet programs online, threatening one of Microsoft's most precious profit centers.
The Windows and Office news came Tuesday at a Microsoft conference for software developers.
Windows 7, the forthcoming operating system, will let users choose to see fewer alerts and warnings from their computers.
Rampant notifications and pop-up windows alerting people to potential security risks have irked many users of Windows Vista.
"We had all the best intentions of helping to secure the PC platform even more, particularly for novice PC users who needed to be protected," said Steven Sinofsky, a senior vice president in Microsoft's Windows group. But Sinofsky acknowledged that Microsoft needed to work earlier and more closely with outside companies to avoid a similar mess in Windows 7.
With Vista, Microsoft made significant design changes to the way windows and icons look, and to where certain features and functions are stashed in the system. Windows 7 keeps some of those changes, but tosses out others.
In an interview, Julie Larson-Green, a Windows vice president, offered one small example: In Vista, Microsoft took the "add printer" feature out of the quick-access Start menu, but after users complained, the company is putting it back in Windows 7.
Larson-Green said some of the changes in Vista made sense to its developers but weren't fully tested on actual PC users — a misstep she seems committed to not repeating with Windows 7.
With Windows 7, Microsoft is also making subtle but useful changes to the task bar along the bottom of the screen. The designers have taken out some redundant buttons that launch applications. And when users roll over the icon of a program in the task bar, it will be easier to see how many documents or windows are open, and switch between them.
Microsoft also showed off "jumplists," which are a quick way of organizing recently used files, Web sites or often-used program features. And it introduced a concept called "libraries," which automatically finds similar files from a single PC, an external hard drive and even other PCs on a home network, then displays them together in a single folder. That could be handy for organizing a family's digital photos that have been stored in disparate places.
The company appears to be betting on a rise in touch-screen PCs. Windows 7 builds in more support for gestures so that even programs that aren't designed specifically for touch-screen computers can be used to some degree by poking or swiping fingers across the screen.
Under the hood, Microsoft said it improved the speed of the system and cut the amount of memory it needs to run. That's been another complaint about Vista, which generally needs costlier hardware configurations than the older Windows XP.
Sinofsky held up a "netbook" — a low-cost, low-power laptop that would have a hard time running Vista — and said it's working with Windows 7.
Microsoft's early 2009 target for people to begin toying with Windows 7 was striking because the Redmond, Wash.-based software maker promised deadlines it couldn't keep when it was developing Vista. The company is trying hard to avoid a similar debacle this time. Sinofsky said there is no date yet for the next milestone, a "release to manufacturing" version of Windows 7, but reiterated that the system is set to go on sale in early 2010.
Takeshi Numoto, a general manager for Microsoft's Office group, also showed off lightweight, functioning versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote software that work in Web browsers and look as they normally do, but don't have to be installed on a PC.
The Web programs allow people to work on a document at the same time, and make it easier to publish charts and PowerPoint presentations to blogs with few clicks.
The Web software, to be offered without charge for regular PC users, will launch with the next version of Office. No date has been set.
Microsoft said the online Office programs will work on its Internet Explorer browser, and rivals Firefox and Safari.