On Wednesday morning, I met with Microsoft co-president Jim Allchin, the man most directly responsible for Windows Vista and Longhorn Server, the company's upcoming client and server operating system releases. Allchin is a soft-spoken, intelligent man with decades of industry experience, the last 15 years of which were spent at Microsoft. I've run into Mr. Allchin at various events throughout the years, but the last time I sat down with him for a one-on-one meeting was in August 2001, when we discussed the then-upcoming release of Windows XP. With Windows Vista on track for a late 2006 release, Allchin hit the road to meet with members of the technical press. Here's what we discussed this week.
Since switching to a Community Technical Preview (CTP) release model for Windows Vista in late summer 2005, Microsoft has really begun rethinking its Windows development strategy. In the past, the development of various Windows versions was denoted by major milestones like Beta 1, Beta 2, and Release Candidate 1 (RC1). Now, the company is shipping many more CTP builds to various testers, and getting more and better feedback. Allchin thinks this will result in a better product.
Looking over the recent development history, Microsoft refers to the December 2005 Windows Vista CTP (see my review) as the Enterprise CTP, because it went out to hundreds of its Technology Adoption Program (TAP) partners, typically large companies that get on-site support and work closely with the software giant to test products in real-world situations. The next Vista CTP, due just after mid-February, will be the first "feature-complete" public release of Vista. In Q2 2005, as Allchin told me (April 12, 2006 according to my sources), Microsoft will ship a public release of Windows Vista as part of its Customer Preview Program (CPP). This will essentially be the April 2005 CTP, but the company will also refer to this release as Beta 2.
"Beta 2 is really the culmination of the three previous CTPs," Allchin told me. "It's really just a different approach for developing the product. We think about Windows Vista only in terms of CTPs. But you can think of it as Beta 2, or the final Beta 2, or even as RC0. We think the quality is going to be good enough there that we won't even have to do an RC0 release. And then the next CTP will be RC1."
I asked Mr. Allchin if he thought whether other groups at Microsoft would pick up on the CTP approach and drop the major milestone schedule. "I don't know," he said. "Certainly, we're going to do it with this product, and we're getting a lot of good feedback. We'll have to see. Many of the things we think of as platforms are doing CTPs as well. But you still have to designate a CTP for a particular purpose, which is what the beta [releases] were for. The difference is that, instead of having a beta and then huge amounts of dead time, and then another huge drop, you have more constant updates. And we think that will speed up the development process."
"Everyone needs to understand that this is a work in progress," he added, referring to the Vista CTP builds. "Don't judge us on specific issues. Judge us on whether the quality and features are improving [with each CTP]. And we still think we're on target for the end of the year. We're going to have to work very hard, in terms of the quality, but we still feel we'll get there."
Features, features, features
Allchin thinks of Vista as being composed of three fundamental pieces, the core OS, experiences, and client core. "There is no part of Windows Vista that doesn't have some consequential improvement," Allchin told me, "whether it's the core level with IPv6, transactioning, or encryption, or any of the new experiences. Across the board, there are just reams of features. The question I keep getting is, 'well, yeah but, what's the big thing?' And..."
"Yeah, really," I said. "What is the big thing?"
After composing himself, Mr. Allchin said that there were some main areas that will have the biggest customer impact in Windows Vista. And those are safety and security, the new user experience, mobility, and Internet.
Allchin described a fairly complex and low-level programming assist called annotations, in which the company is starting on an admittedly primitive way to get the computer more involved in code analysis at compile time. "It's looking for potential errors in the code," he explained. "We have annotated this system, and we have found issues, even in places that had been hand-checked previously. We also use static analysis tools, which tell us to look for problems in particular areas. We're trying to use computers more to help build the system."
"There's also services hardening, where you take software services that are running on the OS and dynamically decorate them to ensure that they're only opening the correct ports, or using the system in the right way," he continued. "With code integrity, we basically sign and verify the integrity of all the chunks of OS code going into the system. That way, a modification of the bits can't be possible without us knowing it. It goes on and on and on. There's just a lot of work being done here. Customers should never actually see these."
Allchin says that threat and vulnerability mitigation are things that customers will actually interact with, through such technologies as IE 7 protected mode and user account protection. "We haven't finished the user experience for all of those things, but the goal is that you'll have less of an attack surface area when you're out browsing the Internet and the ability of something evil to harm your system is minimalized because it's more of a sandbox. Even if IE 7 has a vulnerability, it won't matter because there is a wrapper around it, protected mode." Allchin enumerated through other Vista security features, including the IE 7 anti-phishing technology, IPSEC improvements, Network Access Protection (NAP, network quarantine), BitLocker, Plug and Play Smartcards, the Rights Management client, the simplified logon architecture, and the bi-directional firewall.
"The big deal with the antiphishing and Windows Defender is the community aspect," he said. "With the IE antiphishing technology, we have a reporting tool where users can report malicious Web sites [and site owners can interact with Microsoft to get off of black lists]. It's also true of Windows Defender [with SpyNet]. In both cases, the community helps other users keep their systems clean."
"I personally believe the parental controls are going to be a really big deal from a safety perspective," he added. "The support for Web sites, and how you can control which hours of the day that kids can even use the PC, those are all big deals. And then we've heard from corporations that we [should allow them to prevent users from installing] allow removable [USB] storage devices on their systems, so we've added support for managing that." That feature, called Device Installation Control, will help environments with managed PCs to prevent users from utilizing USB-based memory keys, iPods, and other devices, which can be used to copy information off of their work PCs.
"Across the board, we've got a very holistic view of security," he said. "In the end, I think we will be unrivaled in terms of overall security and safety."
The Windows Vista user experience, which combines low-level Windows Presentation Foundation ("Avalon ") technologies with the Aero user interface for a clean look complete with translucencies and in-place animations, is likely to be another high point for Vista. Indeed, this is the first time that Microsoft has really stressed PC display hardware, and Windows Vista will look and perform better on systems that include decent 3D video cards.
"There's something here for everyone," Mr. Allchin explained. "Generally speaking, the system is going to be easier to use, and it will be much easier to find information. There will be great entertainment support there, and some nice business capabilities, such as Windows Collaboration. All those things will help, but above all, being able to search and find what you're looking for, that's the key.
Windows XP was an excellent mobile operating system, but in Windows Vista, Microsoft is turning things up a notch. First, there will be a central location for managing mobile features, the Mobility Center, which will likely replace all of those horrible third party applications that PC makers typically bundle with their portable computers. "Today, it's very confusing to customers," Allchin said, referring to the many different third party applications.
Allchin also highlighted SideShow, formerly known as Auxiliary Displays. These handy little color screens will soon be showing up on the outside lid of laptops and Tablet PCs, providing users with at-a-glance access to contacts, calendaring, email, and other information. But the biggest news I heard that day--and truly, the one thing that really surprised me--was that the Tablet PC functionality built into Windows Vista will also support touch screens (and not just active digitizers) for the first time. That's right, you'll be able to control Windows with your finger and the appropriate hardware.
"We're now supporting touch control in addition to electro-magnetic," he told me. "We've done a lot of innovations here. As you know, our fingers are quite fat [compared to a stylus], so we've come up with new approaches for getting the focus on a selection. Also, we needed to think through how to handle left and right mouse buttons easily, and we've got a new approach to do that with your fingers. We think that's very impressive." This technology will work on any PC with a touch screen display, not just Tablet PC hardware, he said. "We think it will also be good for entertainment scenarios," he added, "for home users as well."
"Another thing that I think is very cool that we haven't really talked a lot about is the concept of 'harvesting,'" he said. "Because we index everything in Windows Vista, we can use the corpus of terminology and words that you use to be able to disambiguate the terms that you typically use. If you're in the medical field, for example, you might use unique terms that I wouldn't use, but the handwriting recognition will learn about the context that you often use, which might be different than a general purpose dictionary." That same technique is being applied to Vista's speech technology, so that speech input and dictation is much better in Windows Vista.
PC-to-PC synchronization is another big Vista advance, especially when you consider that Microsoft doesn't even have a rudimentary solution available for Windows XP. The machine that Allchin used for his presentation, which was running Vista build 5300, a build that had been created the previous Friday, included the synchronization technology (it was broken in the December CTP). Allchin told me that he used to it synchronize the notebook with his work PC before the trip, so that his documents, pictures, and music would all be available to him on the road. "I went to a meeting, and when I came back, everything was synched up," he said. The Vista sync solution is bidirectional, and works with servers as well as notebooks and PCs.
"All in all, I think we've done quite a bit in the mobile space," he concluded. "There are so many issues in XP today. Consider a typical case, where a user has a laptop that's configured for a domain at work, and then they take it home at night and want to print a document, and they can't find the printer. Or you go to a Starbucks and you want to lock it down differently because it's an open network. We've really worked on that roaming experience. We've also worked on the synchronization between the client and the server. We had CSC before, but now it's so much better. You really can leave all your documents on a server and use cached copies on the client. It's just synchronizing the files when you make changes, as needed.
Internet functionality is the last big advance that Allchin highlighted. "We now have a native IPv6 stack, and everything in the system uses IPv6," he told me. "It's very impressive. It's also running IPv4, of course. This is a system where we can bring IPv6 to the masses, because Longhorn Server also natively supports IPv6. I'm not under any illusion that this is going to happen overnight, but it gives customers the opportunity, when they're ready, to go when they want to go."
The RSS platform is another big deal in Vista. Essentially a low-level data store that will interact natively with IE 7, Windows Sidebar, and Outlook 12, the RSS store will be open and available to third party applications. "It's essential to get the RSS storage in there, so that the different feeds can be centralized and put into a canonical form where all applications can access them," he told me. "Office 12 will use it, and we expect many third party applications to take advantage of it as well."
For the first time, Microsoft is also adding peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies to Windows. The system's Windows Collaboration client utilizes this technology, but it's open to other applications as well.
"And of course IE 7 is a big deal," he added, "for two reasons. One, the security features, and two, we've really improved the user experience."
As with previous Windows releases, Microsoft will rely on the enormous Windows ecosystem to bolster and improve Windows Vista and make it a success in the market place. More so than ever, Vista includes a number of features that will help other companies drive Windows-compatible products, which should benefit everyone involved. "It's been a long time since we've pushed the hardware like we're pushing it in Windows Vista," Allchin said. "We're pushing it in the terms of the laptop hardware like auxiliary displays and touch screens, we're pushing it in terms of the graphics power that we're expecting, we're pushing it in terms of the high density widescreen displays that we prefer, because we think that high definition is the future. And we're pushing it in terms of wireless, and what we'd like to see there. Even in ergonomics, we're trying to drive ahead, and you'll see more of that as we get closer to launch."
"We hope that when we're done, we'll have some great apps running on WinFX, and using things like the peer-to-peer interfaces we put in the product, or People Near Me, which I think is a very cool set of APIs, with a lot of cools plugs where developers can take advantage of it," he said.
"We haven't spent much time talking about Longhorn Server yet," Allchin said. "It is on the same trajectory it's been on, there are no changes." According to Allchin, Longhorn Server Beta 2 is due in the second quarter of 2006, while a Beta 3 release will ship in the second half of 2006. Microsoft still plans to ship Longhorn Server in the first half of 2007.
"It's one milestone behind Windows Vista," he said. "They're being developed in lock step, but there will be one additional major milestone for Longhorn Server. You'll see a lot more CTPs in the future, including a very consequential one this year."
Allchin also touched on how Windows Vista and Longhorn Server would integrate together. "Windows Vista will run just fine without Longhorn Server," he explained, "and Longhorn Server doesn't require Windows Vista. But if you put them together, you get some unique capabilities that you don't get otherwise. These include such things as Network Access Protection [NAP], which is quarantining, or the fact that you can do IPv6 pure, because you have the server support for everything you need. You can do things like remote calls for indexing, [which lets you instantly search network shares as you would the desktop.]"
None of the products that Microsoft is currently developing will require Windows Vista, but Allchin tells me that all of them will get better when used with Vista. He specifically highlighted Office 12, Xbox 360, Longhorn Server, Windows Mobile, SMS 2003, Windows Live, and Visual Studio as applications, servers, and services that offer additional functionality when used with Windows Vista.
So why does Jim Allchin think that Windows Vista is going to matter? "Pervasive security and safety is really the big message," he said. "Visualization and organization is the second one. Third, operational costs and the way we we're managing offline work for deployment images, the new events systems, the new remote access tools, the new built-in diagnostic tools, the mobile features, and so on." It's just flat-out simpler, he noted.
"There are some built-in experiences that are just nice, whether you're at home or work," he added. "For certain people, some of those experiences, such as photo management, will turn them on. But for me, it's more about the plumbing over the long haul. If you think about Windows XP, we did a lot for resiliency and reliability in that release. This is the system that will do that, I hope, for security and safety. As I said, it's unrivaled. However, it won't be unbreakable. I'm not naive. The industry is at the forefront of a long battle on security. Windows Vista is just our next step. It will be a big step, but it's just the next step."
Looking ahead, many people are curious about the next CTP, currently due in February. Allchin said that it would include virtually all of the features Microsoft plans for the final release, including the new image-based deployment tools. "This is the staged build where performance starts getting faster," he said. "The current installation process is quite painful today and we haven't turned on the improvements yet. The XP upgrade will be turned on [for the February CTP] as well, though it will probably be rough." We'll also see some further changes to the way the Explorer windows are organized. Allchin showed me some interim changes in build 5300 but noted that it's already changed in this week's builds.
I asked him about the changes Microsoft has made over time to the Windows Vista shell. You may recall that Vista was to have originally included the WinFS storage engine, but after that was removed, the company still planned to replace the XP-style special shell folders like My Documents and My Pictures with virtual folders. Now, that's being scaled back again, and the special shell folders are back, though virtual folders will still be in the system, albeit in a less prominent role.
"We got feedback that it was too jarring moving to virtual folder visualizations," he told me. "So it's changed even since the December CTP. So now, you get your folders, and you get search. Before, you got search, but you had to work to get to the folders."
"Basically, people are used to folders," he said. "It was so much of a dramatic change that people didn't understand it. There will also be virtual folders, and you can type searches. But if you just want to see your folders, they're still there. We will have bugs, even in the next CTP, around saving virtual folders. But we're not taking virtual folders away."
There's so much more--what you're reading here encompasses about half the time I spent with Mr. Allchin this week--but I'll save the additional material for later articles. In the meantime, we have a few weeks to go before the next major CTP release, and just a few short months before Windows Vista is completed and Allchin retires. That's another topic I'll save for a later date. But Allchin is connected to Windows in ways even Bill Gates can't claim. My expectation is that he will be greatly missed.