The beginnings of two possible configurable new front ends for Windows are buried inside the preview edition of Whistler, the next version of Win2k due out next year. Options called "Start Panel" and "Start Page" can be enabled in the code, and used as alternatives to the standard Start menu. As the preview doesn't ship with these enabled, and Microsoft hasn't exactly shouted about the feature, it can be seen as work in progress - a hint of what may be to come.
We'd like to give credit to whoever unearthed this first, but it's tricky. Paul Thurrott of WinInfo explains it in detail, and thanks Nate Mook of Betanews for tipping him off. Nate Mook of Betanews explains it too, and thanks Paul for discovering it. Still, nice to see these guys getting on at last.
Both are DHTML-based. The Start Panel can be configured from the Start and Taskbar properties, says Paul, while the Start Page is a derivative of Active Desktop with echoes of Neptune, the aborted consumer Win2k project that was merged into Whistler. It's used to organise frequently-used programs and files. The Panel version is two column, and leads off with the IE icon then lists most recently accessed apps, with the old style Start menu accessed via More Programs. This definitely sounds like a work-in-progress bolt-on. The second column operates as a "My Places," housing My this, that, and the next thing.
Microsoft has been experimenting with UI alternatives for some time, and has effectively committed itself to change with its promises of configurable UIs via the Microsoft.NET strategy. But the company has jettisoned new UI projects far more often than it's actually shipped them, so it's probably safest to view the Whistler features as hints of what might be, provided Microsoft doesn't decide to do something else instead. ®