Microsoft previewed new features of its forthcoming version of Windows and of Office 12 at its PDC (Professional Developer Conference) in Los Angeles.

The company revealed that Windows Vista will see the return of the Sidebar, an area of the desktop in which small custom applications, called gadgets, can run. The functionality of gadgets is similar to that of Mac OS X's widgets. While it was seen in earlier Vista builds, Sidebar disappeared in the last beta release.

In a technical demonstration, Chris Capossela, vice President of the Information Worker Group for Microsoft, explained how gadgets can display up-to-date information to the user. More information on these is available online.

Open Vista hears Tiger's roar

"The Sidebar [shows] real-time information that I deal with all the time," he said, before running through some examples including a Web feed gadget, a clock gadget, a search gadget, a picture library gadget and a picture slideshow gadget. Microsoft expects developers to create their own gadgets.

Capossela also gave a demonstration of a related feature called Sideshow that provides a basic interface for gadgets through custom hardware. "Sideshow is another platform that you can build fantastic gadgets for. We're working very closely with our hardware partners to support the Sideshow," he said.

Showing off a device using Sideshow, he explained, "this is just a laptop that's got an auxiliary display, with a couple of hardware buttons here that I can click on. And it's running some mini applications or gadgets for the Sideshow."

"Some of these gadgets run when the PC is turned off, such as the Inbox or Calendar, and some of them require the PC to still be powered on, such as controlling your music," he said.

Gates gives glance at Office 12

Bill Gates took the podium to deliver the first public demonstration of Office 12 during his opening keynote presentation at the event.

The new interface represents the biggest change to Office's appearance in more than a decade. "This is the most significant release of Microsoft Office since Office 95," Gates said.

The traditional menus and toolbars have been replaced by a wide graphical strip, code-named the Ribbon. The interface changes depending on what the user is doing at any one time. Microsoft terms this a "results-oriented user interface" that allows people to concentrate on what they want to do, rather than how to do it.

Command confusion

"One of the things that we focused on when building Office 12 was to help people get better results, faster," said Capossela.

"If you look at the history of Office it's pretty amazing to see how much capability we've built in. When we shipped Word 1.0 the product had about 100 commands, so the menus and toolbars were a fine way to browse it and learn about all those commands," he said. "Word 2003 had over 1,500 commands and thirty five toolbars. That metaphor has become completely overloaded."

"In fact, in our research when we asked people 'What would you like us to do in the next version of Office?' Nine times out of ten people would name something that's actually already in it - they simply don't know it's there, it's just too hard to find," he said.

"A major area for the [Office 12] development team was to really focus on how to make a much more innovative user interface to help to get better results, faster."

Office 12 will offer a feature called Galleries to simplify the process of formatting documents. In conjunction with the new Live Preview capability, users can select potential layouts directly from the Ribbon and see how the results will look in the document instantly.

Also new are what Microsoft calls Super Tooltips, which provide extended help information for buttons and commands available from the Ribbon when the user hovers over each item.