It's been a while since part two of this series appeared, but for once, I can't blame myself: Microsoft has been curiously quiet about Windows 7 in the interim, so there hasn't been much to say. But in recent weeks, things have finally heated up: The Microsoft executives most directly responsible for Windows 7--Steven Sinofsky and Jon DeVaan--have started theEngineering Windows 7 blog, which they pledge to update regularly. And I've gotten my hands on a second interim build of Windows 7, which should lead to some interesting discussion.

Transparency vs. translucency

But that's for the future. For now, let's examine Microsoft's communications about Windows 7 thus far this year. The roots of this discussion date back to a mid-2007 decision by Sinofsky, who penned a memo to co-workers that was first revealed by Mary Jo Foley in her Microsoft 2.0 blog. Here is part of it, with a few comments thrown in for perspective. I have bolded certain passages for emphasis.

7/9/2007
Transparency and disclosure

Transparent. Easily seen through or detected; obvious.
Translucent. easily understandable; lucid.

Today was a pretty exciting day for the folks working on servicing Windows Vista as there were a number of breathless stories about SP1 including dates and features. These stories caught us (management) by surprise since not only have we not announced any of the things in these stories, but much of what was reported was not or will not be the case. This is not a good situation to be in and I thought I'd offer some words on how we think of "transparency" relative to disclosure.

In a classic "making lemonade" moment, Sinofksy is somehow suggesting here that product and timeline leaks are, in fact, a good thing. I find that curious, especially when you consider where this leads...

One topic I have been having an interesting time following has been the blogs and reports that speculate about how Windows will go from being an open or transparent product development team to being one that is "silent" or "locked down". Much of this commentary seems to center around me personally, which is fine, but talks about how there is a Sinofsky-moratorium on disclosure. I think that means I owe it to the team to provide a view on what I do mean personally (and what I personally mean to do), of course I do so knowing that just by writing this down I run this risk of this leaking and then we'll have a round of phone calls and PR management to do just with regards to "Sinofsky's internal memo on disclosure". But I thought it would be worth a try.

The most important thing I believe we owe our shareholders and customers relative to how and what we communicate is that whatever communicate to people be accurate and truthful relative to the work we have going on. This does not mean free from ability to change down the road. It does not mean silence until the very last minute. What it does mean is that we should recognize the potential impact our communications can have on customers, partners, and our industry and we should treat folks with great respect because when we do disclose what we're working on people pay attention?and they do more than listen as they make plans, spend money, or otherwise want to count on what we have to say.

There are fascinating comparisons to draw here between how Microsoft is approaching communicating Windows Vista vs. Windows 7. There are also similar comparisons that can be made with Apple's "event marketing" approach. Apple, like Sinofksy here, believes that silence is their best ally. But it has nothing to do with setting customer expectations: Apple simply wants the biggest bang for its marketing buck, and it can achieve that by keeping everyone in the dark. The result is a big media splash on the two or three times a year, maximum, that they introduce new products.

When we have to change our plans, modify what has been said, or retract/restate things we not only look like we don't have our act together, but we cause real (tangible) pain to customers and partners. One need look no further than the Longhorn/Vista product cycle and the cost to the PC ecosystem of us being out there talking broadly before we really were able to speak with the accuracy our customers and partners assumed. Plans were made. Plans were remade. And then finally people just decided to wait until we really delivered, with some folks not really believing us until the DVD was in their hands, which meant they were no on board with drivers, compatible applications, or the support their customers expected. That example is close at hand, but we can look at examples for Server 2008, ship dates that came and went for any number of products, or even recent examples with Windows Live. This is a challenge that spans all of Microsoft, not just Windows.

I've often commented on how well the Windows Server team handled the Windows Server 2008 development cycle. Few remember this, but Windows Server 2008 was beset by the same delays and scale-backs that tortured Windows Vista. But Windows Server remained unscathed, indeed was heralded for their restraint. And it's not just because the client and server serve different markets. The Windows Server team simply presented a more mature image to the public. People respond to that. It's no wonder Sinofsky seeks to emulate it.

All of these challenges come about because there is a mismatch between expectations and reality?that mismatch or gap is the heart of customer dissatisfaction. What we can do is be thoughtful about planning and then just as thoughtful about how we communicate those plans. That is what we are doing.

...

So our goal as an organization is to be much more thoughtful and considerate with what we disclose. Premature disclosure might make us feel like we were helping. Heck it might even make some customers and partners feel good, and some partners might even understand of the challenges we face in managing our projects. But on the whole it did not make Microsoft a good citizen of the ecosystem and it certainly did not make us good enterprise partners.

And there it is. If there were any doubt, between all the touch screen silliness and UI promises, the bottom line with Windows is a simple truth: It is the enterprise, not any other market, which matters most. Microsoft's conservative communication style on this release is designed solely to calm its enterprise customers into believing that the client team, like the Windows Server team, finally has it together. This is laudable. But it also speaks to a contention I've been making now for a long time: Microsoft can and should split Windows into two separate products, consumer and business, that are developed by two completely different teams, with their own schedules and needs, based on a single Windows OS core. That way, the business side could be "thoughtful and considerate." But the consumer side could be bold and in-your-face.

Our PMG team cannot do their job effectively if they end up in reactive mode.

Which begs the question: Why keep so silent about Windows 7 for so long?

Stories like the ones about SP1 (or similar leaks about Live Services) make getting the word out pretty impossible. It puts us on the defensive. It confuses customers. It makes it so the message we want to get out there?the features we delivered, the quality of the work, the scenarios we enable, etc.?just doesn't make it through the cacophony of chatter about the rumors, partial information, and other guesses. Of course we can't be proactive about how we wish to be new and improved if we are always responding to these situations.

Communicating about communicating

In late May 2008, Sinofksy and company went on the offensive, sort of. The company announced that it was ready to discuss "how they were going to communicate things" about Windows 7, a sort of "communication about communication," if you will. An interview with CNET that month provides the type of corporate non-speak that has thus far dominated this discussion (again, any bolding of Sinofksy's comments are my own, for emphasis):

On the lack of communication about Windows 7:

We want to make sure that when we do share information, that the information we share is accurate and reliable, and that we have in place the mechanisms for feedback such that the feedback is really taken seriously with respect to our plans. The reactions that we've had to some of the lessons learned in Windows Vista are really playing into our strategy of getting together a great plan for Windows 7, and working with all the partners in the ecosystem in a very deliberate way, such that the end result is a very positive experience for all of us.

On Apple's ability to define the client market during Microsoft's silence:

I think that Apple has a very visible campaign, and we work with partners, and have a very different approach to how we're communicating our product. In a way, what I would say is Apple isn't really talking about where they're going, and that was the root of your question.

On the schedule for Windows 7:

Windows 7 is a major undertaking, and we're going to produce a major release of the product. Then what we do is we work on the plans, we get feedback from different partners at different times in the plans, and really the disclosure is when we start to talk about the information that's actionable and exciting about the product. The timing of it depends a lot on what we wanted to achieve, and you've certainly heard us, and we've been very clear, and will continue to say that the next release of Windows, Windows 7, is about three years after the general availability of Windows Vista, and we're committed to that, and we've signed up publicly to do that.

For those of you keeping score, the anticipated release date of Windows 7 has never changed: It's always been sometime around January 2010.

A major release? Really?

We're very clear that drivers and software that work on Windows Vista are going to work really well on Windows 7; in fact, they'll work the same.

So it's not a major release.

We're going to not introduce additional compatibilities, particularly in the driver model.

So it's not a major release.

Windows Vista was about improving those things.

Windows Vista was a major release.

We are going to build on the success and the strength of the Windows Server 2008 kernel, and that has all of this work that you've been talking about.

So it's not a major release.

The key there is that the kernel in Windows Server 08 is an evolution of the kernel in Windows Vista, and then Windows 7 will be a further evolution of that kernel as well.

"Evolution" suggests that it's not a major release from a technical standpoint.

So, memory management, networking, process management, all of the security hardening, all of those things will carry forth, and maintain the compatibility with applications that people expect.

So it's not a major release. :)

Finally, we are going to make sure that the release is available both in 32 bit and 64 bit, which is an additional help for maintaining compatibility, particularly with device drivers. As the 64-bit ecosystem catches up, we expect more and more people, particularly enthusiasts, to be running 64 bit. For many people that's a great scenario today. I know I run 64 bit on most of my machines, including my primary laptop

Just so we're clear, Microsoft's original goal was for Windows Server 2008 to be the last Windows release that ships in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. This is a step back.

There will be a lot of features in Windows 7. It's a major release. I talked about the kernel and driver compatibility and (application) compatibility, but there is a lot more for us to talk about ... and I think that each customer segment will have its own way of understanding what it means for them to be a significant release ... it also might mean, oh, well, if you're not re-architecting the whole thing, then maybe it's not a major release.

That's not it. Major Windows releases have generally been marked by major underlying platform changes, be them to the kernel or otherwise. (There are a few exceptions.) Windows Vista was a major release, even though it appears to function much like XP, because the underlying architecture of the OS is dramatically different from that of its predecessors.

So here's my take on this: Windows 7, from a technical standpoint, will not be a major release. It is an evolution of Windows Vista/2008. However, what he's saying, I believe, is that Windows 7 will be a major release from a functional/marketing standpoint, much in the same way that Windows XP was. Remember, XP was basically Windows 2000 with a new UI and more compatibility work completed under the hood. Its version number, 5.1, betrays its technical heritage.

Windows Vista established a very solid foundation, a multiyear foundation, particularly on subsystems like graphics and audio and storage and things like that, and Windows 7--and then Windows Server 2008 built on that foundation, and Windows 7 will continue to build on that foundation as well.

On disclosure:

Everybody wants to know sooner than later what we're doing. And what we're always trying to balance is, well, if we make mistakes, then that has repercussions in the ecosystem that we don't really want to have, and we really want to be a responsible team as part of the overall ecosystem.

There are many different models for disclosure that different companies work in, and I talked about the one that we're basing on the lessons that we learned from Windows Vista. But, of course, you could look at any of the other vendors in the marketplace, and see how they deal with disclosure, and come up with different models, and speculate about the pros and cons that they really see. I think that we're just focused--the No. 1 goal we're focused on is really the responsibility that we feel, and the respect that we have for all of our customers and partners, and making sure that what we share with them is really accurate and actionable, and that we are focused, like I keep saying, promise and deliver.

What's striking about this conversation, of course, is how little was actually said. Anytime CNET veered towards specifics, Sinofksy refused to discuss them. (I left that stuff out.)

The door creaks open

Early on Thursday, August 14, 2008, Sinofsky emailed me with the following message:

a quick heads up

Howdy,

We haven't been in touch directly in a while, but I wanted to give you a heads up about a new blog that we are starting this week. As we lead up to a series of events this fall that will feature Windows 7, we thought it would be fun for us to start a blog about how we make Windows 7. The blog will be hosted (and written) by myself and Jon DeVaan and will focus on the overall engineering aspects of building Windows 7. Think of it as a companion to the overall external communications about Windows 7.

I ask that you not discuss or write about this till the blog posts since we aren't really letting folks know in advance and we would not want to offend anyone. :-)

The blog will be hosted on http://blogs.msdn.com.

--Steven Sinofsky

I don't know if this email went out to anyone else, but the few reporters and pundits I contacted claimed to have not received the message. A few hours later, the Engineering Windows 7 blog went live. Its first welcome post was characteristic for the communications we had received thus far. That is, it didn't say much. Here are the pertinent bits:

Over the past 18 months since Windows Vista's broad availability, the team has been hard at work creating the next Windows product.

The audience of enthusiasts, bloggers, and those that are the most passionate about Windows represent the folks we are dedicating this blog to. With this blog we're opening up a two-way discussion about how we are making Windows 7.

In other words, it's not the place where they're going to reveal features per se. My guess is they won't be able to resist doing so, however. (A second blog post suggests just that: we think it will be good to talk about the engineering of Windows 7 (the 'how') and the first step is establishing who the engineers are that do the engineering before we dive into the product itself (the 'why' and 'what').")

We strongly believe that success for Windows 7 includes an open and honest, and two-way, discussion about how we balance all of these interests and deliver software on the scale of Windows. We promise and will deliver such a dialog with this blog.

So, I could get really sarcastic here, point to the years of silence and the previous communications mentioned above. Instead, let's give them the benefit of the doubt. I'd really like this thing to turn into an actual conversation. You never know.

We have two significant events for developers and the overall ecosystem around Windows this fall. The Professional Developers Conference (PDC) on October 27 and the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) the following week both represent the first venues where we will provide in-depth technical information about Windows 7. This blog will provide context over the next 2+ months with regular posts about the behind the scenes development of the release and continue through the release of the product.

An astonishing number of tech news outlets and blogs presented this information as a revelation: Oh my god, did Microsoft just announce when they were going to start discussing Windows 7 technical features? No, they didn't. This was well known and, for the record, Microsoft always begins technical discussions about new OSes at PDC and WinHEC. Always. Moving on...

Starting from the first days of developing Windows 7, we have committed as a team to "promise and deliver". That's our goal?share with you what we're going to get done, why we're doing it, and deliver it with high quality and on time.

So. Nothing substantial or newsworthy, other than that Microsoft is finally, officially, blogging about the next release of Windows. Excellent.

In a second post, Sinosky discusses the Windows 7 team. The only really interesting part of that is his list of the main feature teams for Windows 7:

Applets and Gadgets
Assistance and Support Technologies
Core User Experience
Customer Engineering and Telemetry
Deployment and Component Platform
Desktop Graphics
Devices and Media
Devices and Storage
Documents and Printing
Engineering System and Tools
File System
Find and Organize
Fundamentals
Internet Explorer (including IE 8 down-level)
International
Kernel & VM
Media Center
Networking - Core
Networking - Enterprise
Networking - Wireless
Security
User Interface Platform
Windows App Platform

I had heard that Windows Sidebar was disappearing in Windows 7. Apparently gadgets will remain. I don't see anything else there of note, though I'm curious about the "IE 8 down-level" thing. Is Windows 7 going to include an updated version of IE 8, but not a totally new version of IE?

And then there's this:

Some have said that the Windows team is just too big and that it has reached a size that causes engineering problems. At the same time, I might point out that just looking at the comments there is a pretty significant demand for a broad set of features and changes to Windows. It takes a set of people to build Windows and it is a big project. The way that I look at this is that our job is to have the Windows team be the right size?that sounds clich? but I mean by that is that the team is neither too large nor too small, but is effectively managed so that the work of the team reflects the size of the team and you see the project as having the benefits we articulate. I'm reminded of a scene from Amadeus where the Emperor suggests that the Marriage of Figaro contains "too many notes" to which Mozart proclaims "there are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required, neither more nor less." Upon the Emperor suggesting that Mozart remove a few notes, Mozart simply asks "which few did you have in mind?" Of course the people on the team represent the way we get feature requests implemented and develop end to end scenarios, so the challenge is to have the right team and the right structure to maximize the ability to get those done?neither too many nor too few.

Aside from the comparison of Windows to Mozart (ahem), I do think his comments are excellent and accurate because, let's face it, there are two hypocritical and typical complaints about Windows: "it's too big!" and "why doesn't it do more?!".

I'll be following the Engineering Windows 7 blog intently of course, and I'm looking forward to installing a new build of Windows 7. More news on that when possible.