It's like the old Super Bowl gag: "Hey, Microsoft, you just shipped Windows 7. What are you going to do next?" Except this time around, the answer has nothing to do with Disney World: "We're going to do it again." That, at least, was the message I received from the company at last week's Professional Developer Conference (PDC), Microsoft's occasional coming out show for developers.
Of course, there are really multiple answers to this question, and related information about how it was that they got to this position in the first place. In this article, I'd like to discuss these issues, the how and why of Windows 7, where Microsoft is going next with its latest operating system and, more secretively, what the software giant's plans are for its next few Windows versions.
A year after its triumphant debut at PDC 2008, Windows 7 is, of course, complete and shipping to customers. There are lots of things one might discuss around the Windows 7 development process, but the most impressive aspects, I think, are that Windows 7 happened on schedule--literally within two weeks of an internal schedule Microsoft previously denied ever using--and encompasses in final form almost exactly the product that it had publicly promised.
"A year later, we shipped the same product we showed off at last year's PDC," Microsoft general manager Mike Angiulo told me in a briefing at PDC. "People seemed surprised by that. But this is all about creating a platform for developers and opening up new market opportunities. We're trying to get to where they can trust us to do what we said we'd do."
Comparisons with the previous Windows version, Windows Vista ("Longhorn") are as obvious as they are tired. But let's be serious: Creating new operating systems is hard. And it's not just Vista. If you were to compare the development time of Windows 7 with any previous Windows version--and not just the time expended, but the process involved--you'd see some impressive improvements over the past.
(Heck, even Apple took three years to ship its own OS X service pack, Snow Leopard. And while there are probably many excuses for this poor showing, including the company pushing developers to its more successful iPhone platform, OS X, like Windows, is simply a mature proudct. That makes it harder to create interesting new features without substantially changing the user experience. With Snow Leopard, Apple changed the underpinnings of the OS but barely touched the UI. This was something Microsoft was able to avoid--that was what Vista was all about--and Windows 7 is the more compelling upgrade as a result.)
But back to Windows 7 and its year in the pre-release public eye. According to Angiulo, the Windows team received 500 to 600 comments a day on its Engineering Windows 7 blog alone--"and we responded to all of them"--creating an ongoing, virtual hallway conversation with its customers. "This is our hard core community," Angiulo said. "We engineered the product in a glass house with our own developer community, and they kept us realistic. It's the reason we have a humble tone."
Of course, all this happened after Microsoft had already determined the schedule and feature set for Windows 7. With this release, the company adopted an Apple-like secrecy policy, electing to deliver a near feature-complete beta to customers and communicate its intentions only at that point. Microsoft describes this decision--what constitutes a new product development plan going forward--a bit differently.
"Beta is what we're going to ship [when the product is finalized,]" Angiulo explained. "It's respectful of the audience. Look, we know their time is precious."
Beta is also where Microsoft begins getting feedback from a broad audience of testers, though I should note again that this type of feedback isn't what beta testers have traditionally provided throughout Microsoft product development cycles. Instead, it's largely telemetry-based, since (as with Windows 7), Microsoft has hard coded the Beta to automatically send information back to the software giant.
"You can measure [the telemetry feedback]," told me. "We had over 2 million people running the Beta full time by January. And they were generating over 100 million SQM [Software Quality Management, pronounced "squim"] sessions a month. So we really know what's working."
The benefits of this new system also address the most common complaint about Vista, one that that version of Windows never really overcame: Device driver incompatibilities at launch. While some did (and should) blame hardware makers for this problem, there are two important related truths. First, any problem with Windows is arguably Microsoft's fault. And second, because it overpromised with Windows Vista and then continually delayed the product, Microsoft's partners stopped trusting its timeline guidance. So they weren't ready when the product finally launched.
"If new PCs have integration issues, Windows is at fault," Angiulo told me. "You can't say it's not really Windows. It's the whole system. We have to work with partners and be more transparent. We tried to do that with Windows 7 and you can see the difference."
Windows 7 didn't just offer better compatibility with existing hardware devices at launch than did Vista, it also provided new capabilities. When Microsoft showed off the Device Stage user experience for devices during the Beta, its PC maker partners asked if they could use it for PCs. Suddenly, light dawned, and Microsoft was able to kill two birds with one stone. Not only did PC makers not want to be creating custom software for their PC's unique features, but by ceding this functionality to Microsoft, the version of Windows 7 that would ship on many PCs would be cleaner and have less crapware loading at startup.
"So we made the [Device Stage] experience for them [too]," Angiulo said. "PC makers didn't want to be writing all that software anyway, and it was never of high quality. So they were able to offload costs and get what they wanted. And we got a higher performing system too. When we showed off this capability at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show, in January] this past year to manufacturers, they were all waiting for the catch. 'What's the charge,' they asked. There's no charge. They just need to understand what it is they need to do [to support the feature]. That's it."
From a broader perspective, this is all about keeping Microsoft's hardware partners educated about the new functionality they can take advantage of, sure. But it's also about the business model. "We want to help them make money," Angiulo said. "So we looked at the business opportunities early on and instead of hitting the partners after the fact [as before], we did more evangelism up front, getting partner input all along in the process. This wasn't an ivory tower hand-off ."