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Allchin on Vista: "It's Not Going to Work"

Echoing my earlier comments about Windows Vista being a train wreck, Microsoft group vice president Jim Allchin walked into chairman Bill Gates' office in July 2004 and told him that the software project was horribly behind schedule and would never get caught up. "It's not going to work," he said, according to a report in "The Wall Street Journal." The problem was that Vista was too complicated, and Microsoft's age-old methods for developing software just weren't going to be good enough.


Despite my repeated efforts at getting Microsoft to speak on record about the events of last year, when the company halted development of Windows Vista--then codenamed Longhorn--so it could completely start over, from scratch, the software giant and its PR firm has consistently railroaded me and prevented me from sitting down with people who are knowledgeable about what happened. However, I had been briefed informally about these events, referred to internally as "the reset."


Contrary to the WSJ report, however, the reset was underway months earlier than July 2004. At the company's annual Windows Engineering Conference (WinHEC) show that April, Microsoft handed out a Longhorn build to developers that would be the last pre-reset version of the code to ship outside the company. Microsoft executives knew at that time that the development situation had spiraled way out of control, and that they would need to start over, scrapping much of the code that had already been developed.


According to the WSJ, Gates initially resisted Allchin's plan to reset Vista, sure that the company could turn things around. That resistance set back the reset--and thus, the eventual Vista release date--by several months. "There was some angst by everybody," Gates said. "It's obviously my role to ask people, 'Hey, let's not throw things out we shouldn't throw out. Let's keep things in that we can keep in.'" It was too late for that. "The ship was just crashing to the ground," Allchin said. Ship, train, whatever.


Previous to Windows Vista, Microsoft had developed new client and server versions of Windows fairly regularly, every few years. But the enormous laundry list of promised features in Windows Vista proved costly to the software giant. Originally due in 2003, Windows Vista has slipped several times and is now expected in late 2006. Microsoft first showed off the system publicly over two years ago. These time periods are vast eons in software time. And during that time period, Microsoft's competitors have come on strong. Google now dominates the Web. The open source Linux system is a viable server competitor. And Apple's technically excellent Mac OS X system, while not a threat at all to the PC desktop, remains in the game with an ever-possible sales boost from the iPod and iTunes, which dominate the consumer electronics and digital music markets, respectively.


How damaging has Windows Vista been to Microsoft? Allchin, the man mostly directly responsible for Windows development at Microsoft, will retire when the product ships. The entire Microsoft corporate structure has been reorganized to meet the company's new competitive needs, which only came to light when Vista's massive delays highlighted the company's slowness and weaknesses. And customers now doubt that Microsoft is capable of anything grand: Some of Vista's most compelling features, such as a database-backed storage engine that's been in the works for over a decade, have been scrapped so that the company can simply release Vista in a reasonable amount of time.


Much of the problems are related to corporate culture, and that won't be fixed by Microsoft's recent reorganization. Microsoft is far too big a company with far too many levels of executives, to move quickly and seize on new market trends. Windows Vista, as a result, is fighting the OS battles of the last decade, reacting rather than being proactive and innovative. Mac OS X users, for example, can point to many of Vista's features and correctly note that they appeared first on Apple's system, sometimes years ago. For Microsoft, a company that desperately wants to be seen as an innovator, this situation is untenable.


All that said, Windows Vista is now on track. Current beta builds of the system show an OS that is far more similar to Windows XP, with fewer new features and a much less elegant interface, than originally planned. But it's a solid-looking release, and some of the upcoming consumer-oriented features, which Microsoft will reveal between now and the Beta 2 release in early December, are sure to wow users. Has Microsoft gotten its groove back? Not at all, and there are still huge changes that need to be made. But righting the ship for Windows Vista was a good first step.

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