I will start by stating flatly that I like Jim Allchin, who runs Microsoft Windows development. A lot. When he retires at the end of the year, the company will have lost one of its all-time great technology leaders and a very decent guy.
I am writing this column after a 90-minute meeting that eWEEK reporter Peter Galli and I had with Allchin on Thursday. Peter has written a great story about some of what Allchin told us and Microsoft Watchs Mary Jo Foley has covered other parts of it.
All this coverage exists because Allchin and Neil Charney, who reports to him, have been on the road giving a Vista status report to the media and showing off recently added features. So, while this qualified as a “special meeting,” if I really need to ask him something, Allchin has always answered my e-mail. Ill talk about this “openness” more in a moment.
When I read about Windows Vista development, what has stayed in, whats been left behind, I remember two things: One is Allchins mantra—on which he expects to be judged—”Quality, schedule, features.” The second is that the dev calendar, one hes been showing for almost a year now, hasnt changed in major ways.
With the next beta release, Windows Vista will be “feature-complete” and the focus will shift from raw development to user interface “tweaks,” as Allchin calls them, bug fixes, and application and driver compatibility. On the latter front, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista will only accept signed drivers, which ought to improve stability and security.
With the feature set done, Vista will get more quality checking than any previous Microsoft operating system, in part because of the open beta process. Allchins commitment to quality is serious, as is the promise to ship this year. Nothing like scheduling your retirement to emphasize the importance of shipping on time.
During our meeting, I chided Jim for not enforcing the same requirements in the 32-bit release that most of us will be using in the near term. Allchin said he didnt think that could be done without causing too much upset. My feeling is the industry needs to grow up, and signed drivers are part of that.
Several colleagues have remarked that Microsoft, once known for secrecy, has become remarkably transparent as it has developed Windows Vista. I dont know any major “secrets” about the project and can write about anything and Microsoft doesnt go nuts when something leaks its way into the media—providing its accurate. What secrets there are seem to be mostly in the realm of decisions yet to be made, like the specific SKUs that will be released.
Why has Microsoft moved to such a public process? First, I think the company believes that secrecy caused many anti-trust problems and made people suspicious.
That isnt to say Microsoft hasnt done some bad or stupid things, but its people feel that they have also been unfairly painted as bad guys when they were merely trying to do their best—behind closed doors. Sunlight remains an excellent cleanser, and the Window Vista, and to a lesser extent Office 12, beta programs are demonstrating this.
Allchin, I believe, welcomes all the outside input he can get. Hes just one guy, but hes an accessible guy. And hes spending lot of money on getting customer feedback for his development team. One of the upcoming Vista releases, for example, will be aimed at consumer testing, with Microsoft enrolling something like 5,000 test families whose experiences will be closely watched.
Something Microsoft may get dinged for is changing how Virtual Folders are presented in Windows Vista. I wont describe these fully, except to say that they are confusing. And not just to me, Allchin said. The folders, a powerful feature that takes some getting used to, have been downplayed a bit so users can find and use them at their own speed. That is a change based on user feedback, and is how a more transparent development process helps everyone.
During our conversation, I tried to find a way of asking Jim, “So when is the final release?” that he could answer. The commitment is to have Windows Vista preinstalled on a large number of computers sold during the 2006 holidays. I asked Jim about the drop-dead date for getting final code to the hardware vendors.
Jim looked a little anguished, turned his head and crinkled his face a bit, before saying he couldnt comment without revealing too much of the hardware vendors proprietary information. So, I am saying September or October and will leave it at that. If Allchin wants to disagree he knows how to find me.
We covered a lot of ground during our conversation. I remain concerned that Vista lacks a major selling point aside from security. But, the more I see of it, the more nice features Im seeing. No single feature, besides security, will sell the operating system to a skeptical world. But there are so many interesting features in Vista, each aimed at specific customer segments, that almost everyone will find something to like about Windows Vista.
Thanks to a more transparent development process, more people are seeing Vista, and seeing it earlier, than any previous Microsoft operating system. By the time it ships, anyone who cares will have had a chance to play with a copy. Which is how operating systems ought to be developed.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at [email protected]