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An early look at life after Vista

The improvements to Microsoft Corp.'s next version of Windows may be incremental, but they could go a long way toward improving the software giant’s reputation.

Microsoft on Wednesday released to programmers a trial version of Windows 7, the follow-up to the Windows Vista operating system, which bruised the company with bad reviews and disappointing sales. A version of Windows 7 for consumers to test on their personal computers is expected Friday.

New features are designed to make operating a computer less frustrating and to work better with gadgets. Microsoft is betting that the final version of Windows 7, expected to arrive in stores in a year, will address some of the flaws that have dogged Vista -- and have been lampooned famously in Apple Inc. commercials.

“We are on track to deliver the best Windows ever,” Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said during his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show. “Windows will remain the center of people’s technological solar system.”

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Microsoft also edged out rival Google Inc. on two search-engine deals that Ballmer announced Wednesday. The first was with Dell Inc. to load Microsoft’s search engine on new PCs. The second was an exclusive five-year agreement to install Windows Live search software on most cellphones sold by Verizon Wireless, which, when it completes its acquisition of Alltel Corp., will be the nation’s largest cellular carrier with more than 71 million subscribers.

But Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash., technology powerhouse, still gets the lion’s share of its profit from its operating system and office productivity software.

“Vista created a pretty negative impression,” said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with independent consulting firm Directions on Microsoft. “Microsoft wants to make Windows 7 just work, right out of the box.”

That alone would differentiate it from Vista, which required so much computing power when it was introduced in January 2007 that many PCs were too slow to run it. The operating system also had trouble interacting with many gadgets, such as cameras and cellphones, that can be connected to computers.

Because Vista required some customers to buy more powerful PCs, many shunned the software.

“Vista meant a lot of upgrades, and when you have to replace the PC it substantially increases the cost of upgrading,” said Charles Di Bona, a longtime Microsoft analyst. “People were reluctant to do it, and that hurt [its] penetration rate.”

Windows 7, which analysts say is a streamlined version of Vista, is expected to play nicely with most of the computers in the market. That should make the software an easier sell as the sour economy leaves companies and consumers less inclined to replace computers, Di Bona said.

At CES, Ballmer highlighted a few of the key features of Windows 7, which the company said was on track to be released by next January. For example, it will make it easier to find and retrieve files such as photos, movies or documents from other machines on the same household network.

The software also will pop open a quick start page whenever a device is plugged into the computer for the first time. The feature is designed to erase memories of Vista, which often failed to recognize common devices.

Despite its shortcomings, Vista created record revenue for Microsoft, whose operating systems continue to run more than 90% of the world’s desktops and laptops.

The company has said that adoption of Vista was the highest of any of its operating systems. But that’s because there are roughly 40% more computers now than when Microsoft released its previous operating system, XP, in 2001, Di Bona said.

As more computing happens on cellphones, TVs and other consumer electronics, Microsoft is struggling to expand its presence. In his speech, Ballmer highlighted efforts to make headway into the “three screens” of consumers.

“By bringing together the TV, PC and phone, plus the [Internet] cloud, we can create a seamless experience that can make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

On the video game front, the company announced that two installments of its Halo franchise would ship later this year. Halo Wars is expected to ship March 3, and Halo 3 ODST is expected to be released in the second half of this year.

Predecessor Halo 3 reaped an eyebrow-raising $170 million in U.S. sales in its first 24 hours on the market in 2007.

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alex.pham@latimes.com


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