Microsoft is promising its new "Device Stage" will help you connect hardware without having to install vendor rubbish software.
One of the main innovations in Windows 7 is Device Stage, a new approach to hardware driver installation that promises to allow manufacturers to customise how hardware is installed and managed without filling your PC with so much unwanted crapware. Can it live up to the promise?
It's no secret that as Windows has evolved, drivers for common hardware items have gotten ridiculously large. Printer drivers, for instance, can routinely take up more than 200MB. Combine that with the endless sea of crapware found on most new PCs (often performing alternate versions of functions already in the operating system) and there's a lot of rubbish on your machine that could easily be removed.
And while installation is now easier than it used to be for most devices, there are still occasional hiccups. The idealised Microsoft model is for devices to automatically install themselves using Windows when first connected, either accessing drivers already within the main Windows software base or found online via Windows Update. In practice, though, many devices still insist on entirely separate driver software installation routines being used (cue a million 'DO NOT CONNECT BEFORE INSERTING CD' warnings).
Even Microsoft acknowledges that the approach could be better. "For consumers, their baseline is that it's got to work great, and then they want exciting new experiences," said Gary Schare, director of hardware ecosystem product management for the Windows client group.
Some of those problems could potentially be addressed by imposing stricter (read:Apple-like) controls on how installers are developed. However, Microsoft is keen to promote the idea that the Windows experience can be customised by individual manufacturers to provide a better (for the consumer) and more profitable (for the seller) experience. As such, major-league restrictions are unlikely.
There are other issues with device setup too. Gadgets which serve multiple functions — such as printer/scanner/storage systems, or mobile phones which also have on-board storage and synchronise with your desktop calendar — often show up as distinct individual devices, which makes management and troubleshooting difficult. (Cue 10 new drives showing up on My Computer when you connect your phone.)
"Windows was not well structured to deal with those kinds of changes," said Microsoft group program manager Dennis Flanagan during a presentation at the WinHEC hardware conference. "We had very inconsistent views of devices and different entry points. We're not training people to interact with devices in a consistent manner."
So the big picture is a bunch of competing needs: allowing customisation, not cluttering the machine with crap, keeping device installation relatively consistent, and working effectively with devices that don't meet a single functional definition. Is there any way of balancing these different requirements?
Enter Device Stage
The latest attempt, in Windows 7, is known as Device Stage. The whole installation experience for new hardware in Windows 7 has been streamlined, with the goal of not requiring install CDs. Device Stage builds on that concept by providing a standardised way in which manufacturers can provide a custom interface to their device (and functions commonly associated with it), without needing massive separate software installs. Once a Device Stage-enabled device is connected and installed, all its functions can be accessed and managed via its associated Device Stage window.
Device Stage screens are designed to offer access to relevant functions in an environment which manufacturers can customise, but which retains a broad Windows look and feel. The features available vary depending on both the device and the choices made by the manufacturer. A camera, for instance, would typically have options for copying photos onto the PC, and for launching image editing software, while a printer might include links for ordering new ink when supplies are running low.
Above: A sample Device Stage screen for a smart phone.
Device Stage installers recognise than a combined printer/scanner/fax device should only appear once (a concept Microsoft employees refer to as the "single piece of plastic" view), both in any specific Device Stage windows and in the generic Devices & Printers view which shows all installed hardware. (A neat feature of this window is that it shows actual photos of installed devices, not generic icons.)
Device Stage installations are designed to be non-intrusive. The first time you connect a Device Stage-enabled gadget, the full Device Stage window will pop up after installation. On subsequent plug-ins, this won't happen, though you can access the full window by clicking on it in the taskbar.
On the back end, Device Stage is largely implemented via XML; companies can essentially add files describing the tasks they want to achieve with their existing driver and programs and bundle them together to create a Device Stage installation. The actual core driver itself doesn't need to be touched. "No new drivers are required and no device firmware has to change," said Microsoft program manager Robin Goldstein. In practice, any company which bothers to use Device Stage will probably make more substantial changes, but it's not an essential requirement.
Microsoft is planning some kind of "quality mark" similar to the Windows Logo program to identify hardware which uses Device Stage, though details have yet to be finalised. In order to implement Device Stage, manufacturers will have to go through the Windows Logo qualification process, which is designed amongst other things to eliminate poorly written driver code.
What are the restrictions?
While Microsoft constantly emphasises the importance of choice and the ability to customise, there are a number of restrictions which apply to Device Stage. As well as needing to meet the logo requirements and allow a CD-free install via Windows Update, companies aren't allowed to be overly aggressive in their branding. "There are rules in the top branding area where the status is — they can't turn that into a advertising billboard," Schare said.
Beyond that, however, there aren't many major restrictions. "There aren't a lot of rules about what applications a device maker might want to make available," Schare notes — so some might potentially include links to download fresh screeds of company bloatware.
However, vendors aren't allowed to mandate the use of a particular piece of software for a task, and users can choose which software to use for a particular task (using the right-click 'jump lists' which pop up throughout Windows 7). It seems likely that Microsoft is taking this approach in order to ensure that its own Live offerings aren't completely swamped — it will be possible, for instance, to choose to use a Live service for uploading photos to the Web rather than one from a camera manufacturer. Whatever the motivation, though, the effect should be less enforced bloatware.
Customisation can also be used to provide different regional experiences, so camera vendors don't include useless links to US-only printing services, for instance. Vendors could even opt not to use Device Stage in particular markets, opting for a more basic Windows experience if the extra services they want to offer aren't relevant in particular regions.
"It's really under their control," Schare said. "The opportunity for a device maker is to offer very unique offerings for each device." The sky isn't quite the limit, though: "The challenge is managing the cost of that."