Back From The Brink
If stress were his major, Jim Allchin would have graduated magna cum laude.
The VP of Microsofts Platforms Group was a key player in the rise of Windows NT, and he personally oversaw the final shipment of Windows 2000. And if those activities didnt create enough strain on his psyche, the 49-year-old Allchin was brutally raked over the coals during his testimony at the Microsoft antitrust trial. That case, he admits, "took a good personal toll on me."
But after an extended vacation in mid-2000, Allchin is back in the saddle again and ready for more stress and strain. This time, the major source will be Microsofts .Net strategy, which chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled during Allchins absence. The ambitious effort to build Internet servicessome free, some paidon top of Windows will enable users to access these services from any Internet-enabled appliance, without a browser.
Like in the early days of Windows, Microsoft is calling on all developers to support .Net, paying particularly close attention to potential partners in Silicon Valley.
But the loudest battle cry for .Net is being sounded within the halls of Microsoft itself. And the man who has to rally Windows behind .Net is none other than Jim Allchin.
That Sinking Feeling During his sabbatical last summer, Allchin spent time on a boat equipped with a Windows NT-based navigation system. Many of those on board were struggling to use and maintain their personal Windows 98 laptops. After a few days at sea, Allchin experienced a sort of revelation: PCs are actually difficult to use.
"My world has been one of Windows 2000 and NT, but these people were running Windows 98 and the like," Allchin recounts. "It was very painful to watch and live it day after day."
Determined to re-ignite the PC industry and improve Microsofts software by making it relevant in the Internet age, Allchin returned to the company refreshed and invigorated.
In addition to aligning Windows with .Net, he is currently overseeing many other technology initiatives in the company, from operating systems, browsers, servers and tools, to the Microsoft Web site, developer training and digital media.
Allchin has no doubt that the entire company will rally around the .Net banner. "In the early days, when Bill was trying to get people to write to Windows, he knew he could command one group to do itthe developers within Microsoft," he recalls. "Likewise, the [Microsoft] servers and clients are commanded to do a good job of .Net."
Allchin describes .Net as a platform built on five cornerstones.
First, it will use core underpinnings like XML, SOAP, UDDI and other standards to create a new programming model, allowing systems to communicate across the Web and find information presented through Web sites without going through a browser. "Just like there was a move from character mode to GUI mode, theres a move from browsing the Net into programming the Internet," says Allchin. "Its simple in a non-Web environment to create a spreadsheet of different accounts and e-mail it through a scripting language. Its inevitable thats going to happen to the Web. People will have agents doing things for them, and they will create customized interfaces that tie different Web sites together."
Second, Microsoft is creating Hailstorm, a set of meta-Internet services based on Passport (see story, p. 20). Allchin compares these services to "a domain controller in the sky" for Internet users, a set of services "that are really core to making the life of other Web services easier."
Third, Microsoft will offer development tools for partners to write additional .Net services. Visual Studio.Net is one such tool.
Fourth, Microsofts clients and servers will support the entire .Net strategyfrom programming standards to Microsofts related tools.
Fifth and finally, Microsoft will build its own free and fee-based Web services that leverage .Net.
Everyones a Critic Like many previous Microsoft initiatives, .Net faces plenty of skepticism. Critics wonder if Microsoft is trying to commandeer the Internet. Others fear that Bill Gates plans to put virtual pay tolls on every server, while yet a third group worries that Microsoft will write proprietary .Net APIs that nobody else knows about.
This controversy, too, is similar to the early days of Windows, when third-party developers alleged that Microsofts own applications group had gained the upper hand against rivals because it had access to undocumented Windows APIs.
Allchin is ready to take on the skeptics. "Im not going to comment about the past," he says. "But I will say this: We need to be a responsible leader. We think we have been, and we think theres more that we can do [in this area]. Its up to Microsoft to make sure its very clear what we think is open, where we gave up in terms of intellectual property, and where we plan to make money."
In the case of .Net, Microsoft intends to profit from sales of its development tools, software and fee-based services that leverage .Net. Allchin says Microsoft will not profit from the research and development aspects of .Net, which include defining the protocols and how those protocols talk to Web services. The company hopes to break even on the Hailstorm meta-services, although it is still grappling with its revenue model in that area.
Microsoft has not said explicitly which of the services Gates announced last month will be free and which paid, but Allchin says meta-services will include fundamental abilities like a rendezvous service for finding people online. He insists that all of the standards that work on .Net will be open.
In addition to .Net, Allchin is looking forward to pursuing some other projects, specifically, how Windows can take better advantage of three-dimensional and social interfaces, and how transactions can be deeply embedded into the operating system.
Allchin says it should be possible to create "a knowledge representation" of a system that could understand what a user is trying to do and respond intelligently. For example, a machine that understood the differences between dates and people and places could perform intelligent actions like suggesting meetings.
Feed the Cash Cow Allchin also has his hands full with several Windows upgrades, including 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows XP. Think of Windows XP as the first consumer Windows release built on the Windows NT/Windows 2000 code base. Windows XP also will replace Windows 2000 Pro as Microsofts preferred corporate desktop.
"With Windows XP, we [finally] have one code base that were working with," says Allchin. "One code base has been our dream. Its what weve been working toward for a long time. At the super low end, well continue with Windows CE. But the rest of the Windows family will be based on the NT/Windows 2000 code base."
Allchin says Windows XP is being written simultaneously for the current 32-bit Intel architecture as well as Intels forthcoming 64-bit family, known as Itanium. "When Intel releases to early deployment for Itanium, well be there," he says.
Skeptical? Allchin has beaten the odds before. When he left Banyan Systems for Microsoft in 1990, few people in Redmond knew what TCP/IP was. And Microsofts early attempt at a network operating system, dubbed LAN Manager, was an embarrassment. Things got slightly better in 1993 with the release of Windows NT 3.1, but sales didnt meet expectations because of large memory requirements, poor network connectivity and limited applications support.
Allchin addressed those shortcomings in 1994, with the release of NT 3.5. The upgrade included connectivity to TCP/IP and IPX (Novell NetWare) networks. Microsoft also introduced its BackOffice suite at that time. By 1997, NT Server was the No. 1 server operating system, according to International Data Corp.
Now, Allchin hopes to repeat that success with .Net. "I came back from Europe wanting the PC to be all the things I thought it could be," he explains. "Not as gray boxes or sheet metal, but thinking about what it could become."
Apparently, that was one inspiring boat trip.