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Programmer unlocks hidden Windows 7 features

A programmer has unlocked several still-unfinished features of Windows 7 that Microsoft Corp. has hidden from users who received the alpha build at two recent developer conferences.

Over the weekend, Rafael Rivera, a developer for a Virginia-based company that sells secure messaging software to the U.S. government, posted a utility he dubbed "Blue Badge" that patches nine system files in Windows 7, including "explorer.exe" and "shell32.dll." The tool disables the protection scheme that Microsoft added to the alpha to keep eyes off some features that still need work.

The utility's name is a nod to the background color of card keys given to full-time Microsoft employees. According to Rivera's analysis, Windows 7 checks the user's allowed domain and username, then unlocks the features if it decides the user is a full-time worker. Microsoft is currently testing Windows 7 internally.

Rivera's tool lets users access Windows 7's new taskbar -- a feature that Microsoft heavily promoted at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in late October -- as well as other unfinished bits of the operating system, including multi-touch gestures and a dynamic desktop slideshow that pulls images from Web-based feeds.

Blue Badge can be downloaded from Rivera's blog in a version suitable for the 32-bit version of Windows 7. A 64-bit edition of the unlocking tool has been delayed, he said Sunday.

Rivera started digging into Windows 7's protection scheme shortly after PDC concluded, and posted his first discoveries two weeks ago.

Windows 7, which Microsoft has repeatedly said will ship in late 2009 or early 2010, has been branded as "Windows Vista, a lot better," by CEO Steve Ballmer. Although only a small number of people have the alpha -- including attendees of PDC and the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), which wrapped up Nov. 7 -- the successor to Vista will move into public beta testing early next year.

Pirated copies of the Windows 7 alpha leaked to the Internet only hours after it handed out the code at PDC.

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