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Windows 7 Drivers to Get a Makeover

WinHEC
LOS ANGELES -- Microsoft has already said Windows 7 will retain Vista's driver model, ensuring hardware drivers written for Vista will work with the new operating system when it ships.

However, that doesn't mean Microsoft can't make big changes in other directions when it comes to handling devices.

Over the years, PC users have had an increasing number and variety of devices hanging off their machines -- which Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) noted isn't always handled with the greatest of elegance.

"As you get to a world where your devices are smarter and more multifunction, then you get to a world where your printer isn't just a printer, it's a printer, a scanner, a fax machine and it's a storage device," Gary Schare, director of Widows product management, said during a briefing with InternetNews.com here at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC).

One of the changes being made is in the DeviceStage system for handling attached and connected devices.

When a device is installed on a computer, the vendor creates a menu entry in the Windows Start menu, which is listed under All Programs. Most of the time, customers ignore this. To help combat this, Windows 7 will see all of this moved into the DeviceStage menu, which looks more like the Control Panel.

"You have these new mechanisms to connect devices, but what customers told us is, 'We love the new devices, but we're not able to get the full value out of them,'" Schare added.

Microsoft also is beefing up the Windows Update program to include greater driver support. It wants users to have an instant-on experience when they install a new piece of hardware, so drivers not found within Windows 7 can be retrieved through Windows Update.

"The initial experience is: Plug in it, you don't need any software, it just starts to work," Schare said. "It will automatically download a metadata package to define the experiences that they want to show up."

Those metadata files are just XML pointers to additional downloads or links to Web sites and online services. It's up to the vendor to decide what links they'll include, but the overall effect is to create a common place where all of the device extras will be stored -- in the DeviceStage window for each device.

Getting drivers ready for Windows 7 means a lot of outreach to OEMs, and Microsoft has three more WinHEC shows planned, all in Asia. Next month, Microsoft will hold WinHEC shows in Taipei, Beijing and Tokyo, aimed at reaching out to the region's many peripheral and component makers and making sure they get their drivers ready for Windows 7's launch.

64-bits is already here

One area in which Microsoft may have to do little additional pushing is in getting developers to develop 64-bit drivers.

The company maintains a compatibility site listing about 17,000 products and indicating which have 32-bit drivers and which also have 64-bit drivers. A healthy number of dedicated PC devices already have a 64-bit driver. And with 64-bit machines representing up to 20 percent of new computers connecting to Windows Update during October, it looks like the migration from 32- to 64-bit is on even without Microsoft's active encouragement.

Ever-increasing installed memory has been a key driver for 64-bit support, a trend expedited further with tools from Microsoft that make it possible to create both 32-bit and 64-bit drivers.

"We're asking, 'What has the consumer experience been?' And what we're finding is it has far exceeded all expectations," Schare said. "We just didn't think this would happen this fast, or that memory prices came down so fast."

Some areas still lag, however. Many devices that aren't typically considered peripherals -- like digital cameras -- tend to lack 64-bit drivers. And while current and new products often have a 64-bit driver, getting support for a five-year-old product might be more of a challenge.

"It's no small investment to go back to a five- or 10-year-old product and make it work with Windows," Schare added. "Testing is the real cost. So the ecosystem feels its way out and sees what the customers want to do."

"Is 64-bit as compatible as 32-bit? No. Is it close enough? Everything we're hearing is the experience has been great and it's getting better every day," he said.