Robert McLaws: Windows Edition

Blogging about Windows since before Vista became a bad word

Longhorn Shakeup - Part One: The Social Perspective

This is the first in a series of commentaries I'll be writing about the changes that are coming in Longhorn. There's going to be a lot of speculation over how this will affect the Microsoft roadmap for the next decade, so I thought I should throw some inside insight into the fray. Now, much of what I have to say will probably appear to follow the "party lines" that Microsoft laid out on Friday. What I'm hoping to discuss over the next several entries is an expansion on what has already been revealed, in hopes of connecting the dots for the rest of the community.

While most people will be focusing on the removal of WinFS from the main release, I want to take the time in this first article to talk about some of the backstory that lead up to Friday's decision. The past year has been very interesting for Microsoft. MSBlaster shook the company hard, and really forced everyone in the organization to take a hard look at how they did business. Up until that point, there was a real disconnect between the company and it's customers. Well, Microsoft caught an earful from those disconnected customers in the hours, days, and weeks following the attack. And, in the company's defining moment, they started listening.

But Microsoft had been developing Longhorn in secret for at least 18 months, maybe longer, prior to MSBlaster. This development track had been predetermined, and predestined to follow the same old Microsoft dev cycle: built in the Echo Chamber, with few outsiders defining how the OS was going to function. Following that same ol' path was going to introduce the same ol' problems, but a burgeoning new movement inside the company would soon change that. 

Two months after MSBlaster came the PDC, where Microsoft did something it had never done before: it laid it's plans bare in front of 3000 developers, reporters, and IT planners years before the finished product would be released. The plans were ambitous, and the world cheered. When Microsoft said it was betting the company on Longhorn, it was only partially accurate. MS really took it in the shorts with their "let's take over every tech company" strategy, so they really needed the whole "corporate transparency" thing to work for them. While it would appear to the world that Microsoft was betting the company on a revolutionary new platform, the bigger bet was that the world at large would welcome Microsoft's newfound benevolence.

So in October 2003, Bill Gates & Co opened the kimono (and, surprisingly, Don Box didn't) to show the world Windows Codename 'Longhorn'. They touted new architectural strategies, new capabilities, and a new slew of confiusing acronyms (WinFS and WinFX... come on guys) that would make the computing world a better place. It was the "revolutionary" new operating system that would usher in the "Digital Decade", with large swaths of the company's product lines being delivered in synchronized waves.

But as Bill was touting the future, already the need for change was apparent. Features that were being developed for Longhorn suddenly needed to be done yesterday, and Windows XP Service Pack 2, previously only a hotfix rollup, now had to break the mold and introduce a significant new feature set. Never before had Microsoft fundamentally changed the operation of a product in a service pack, and the ramifications would be huge. So Microsoft made one of the most expensive business decisions it ever made. They ground development on their next OS to a halt, and moved most of the Windows team to solving the security problem in Windows XP.

Many people underestimate the significance of Service Pack 2. I personally believe that Microsoft should have called it Windows XP2, because it really is a new version of Windows, but I don't determine that stuff. A lot had changed since it was released in 2000. There were better compilers that did a better job checking for "buffer overruns" and other trivial bust nasty coding flaws. So Microsoft completely recompiled the codebase to take advantage of the increased protection. There were hundreds of bug fixes, as well as vast changes to the core of IE, which forms the basis of most of the Windows browsing and navigation experience.

But I digress. So Microsoft didn't just stop working on Windows while SP2 was in development. They had evangelists across the country talking to ISVs, IT implementers, and end users, getting feedback on the public and private versions of Longhorn that had been released. They had internal teams prototyping Longhorn applications to get a feel for what ISVs would be going through. And they were surprised with the results.

Compared with the difficulty in installing, using, and maintaining Windows; the prevalence of spyware, "browser helpers" and other malware; and the lack of consumer education on the perils of a connected society; the thought of a new desktop rendering system wasn't all that exciting. On top of that, it was becoming increasingly apparent that WinFS was not as far along in the development cycle as it's pillar counterparts. So Allchin did exactly what he is paid to do: he caught wind of the problem and realized that action needed to be taken.

What happened next is the same thing that happens in every software development cycle. The problem is, while Microsoft went great lengths to educate people on what they wanted to do with Longhorn, they virtually ignored educating people on how software development works. This miscalculation will prove costly in the PR war that Microsoft battles daily. The armchair quarterbacks of the tech world will rip MS a new one, but Microsoft will learn from its mistakes, and the process will go on.

In the weeks leading up to Friday's announcement, Microsoft had to look at what it wanted to do, versus how long it would take to do what it wanted, and how much that would cost to accomplish. They also had to factor in the new feedback, and adjust their priorties in regards to usability. So you would think "Well, Microsoft has $70B in the bank, they can afford to do whatever they want." In an ideal world, that would be true, but Microsoft is a publicly traded company, answering to shareholders that will not tolerate a lull in profits. Something had to give, and Microsoft came up with an unorthodox way to do it.

In the end, Microsoft got what it wanted, but not in the way it wanted. They said that Longhorn was going to be a revolutionary operating system, and I believe that it will be. The architectural side will definitely improve, but the revolution will take place where it really belongs, in ensuring that computers are as easy to use, easy to manage, and resiliant to attack as possible. And that can only be good for everybody.

In my next installment, I'm going to talk about the death of the 'software wave', and what it means for the Microsoft roadmap through the end of the decade.