Tonight We're Going to Party Like It's 1999

OK, retrospectives are cheap, I admit it. But this isn't just any year that's ending, its 2009, the end of a decade, and the ten year anniversary of my time writing for this newsletter. So I dusted off the old hard drive (OK, not literally) and looked back to see what the hot issues were a decade ago, in late 1999.

Before we get to that, however, I'd like to take a moment to thank those people who worked, and still work, behind the scenes to make Windows IT Pro UPDATE and the wider Windows IT Pro organization such a success and, as important, so fun to be part of. There were a number of editors over the years, and while I don't mean to slight anyone, I do want to call out two, Ronnie and Gayle, because they were around the longest.

Ronnie was my first UPDATE editor and, perhaps coincidentally, my best stories involve here. Early on, there was an unwritten rule of sorts that the editorial in UPDATE should be about 500 words long, but I was told that I could hit up to 1000 words if I needed to. (For reference, 900-1000 words is roughly the length of a full page in the print magazine.) As a notorious over-writer, I would regularly exceed 1000 words. So eventually, Ronnie informed me that I didn't have to write so much. I responded that the extra text was basically more bang for the buck. "But Paul," she wrote back. "It's a free newsletter!"

My other early memory was the day my Internet connection went down and my wife and I were heading to the airport to go away on a trip. Afraid that I wouldn't meet my deadline, I printed out the editorial I had written and the read it to Ronnie over the phone. It went out on time, and to appease Ronnie, I was sure to keep that one to just 500 words.

But back to 1999. I started off the decade down on Windows 2000. As a big NT fan--my web site, the SuperSite for Windows, was originally called the Windows NT 5.0 SuperSite--I was disappointed to see that the marketing dweebs had won out and taken control of my pet system. NT would be relegated to the tech trash heap and Windows would be the name going forward. I was a big fan of Windows 2000--hey, it was NT--but thought so little of the marketing moves that I skipped the launch.

There was a bigger issue surrounding Windows 2000, and it's interesting to note now that history (sadly) repeated itself in future Windows versions. "Windows 2000 is the ultimate example of what happens when you take three years to bring a product to market," I wrote in August 1999. "There is simply no way that the majority of the goals for Windows NT 5.0 in 1996 make sense over three years later. If Microsoft has learned anything from its experience with the Windows 2000 beta, I hope it's that small, incremental upgrades, provided in a timely fashion, are far more desirable than a big whopping upgrade every three years. The true sticker shock behind Windows 2000 will have nothing to do with its up-front costs, of course, but rather with its support costs, which will likely be considerable. There's just too much change going on here, and it's going to require a lot of training." Queue memories of Windows Vista, which had an even longer development time and was far less eagerly embraced by businesses.

I also waxed enthusiastic about Exchange 2000 Server early in my tenure. Microsoft has shipped three major versions of the product since then, gone x64-only, and offered a hosted version to boot. But I'm more ambivalent about Exchange now than I was, largely because of the move to cloud-based services and, frankly, my good experiences with Google's Gmail solution. I do appreciate the Exchange 2000 tagline, however, especially since it could be applied to many products today as well: "anytime, anywhere access to the people and information you want." There you go.

My most controversial story that first year, and one of the most controversial things I've ever written, involved work that Microsoft had contracted to create a version of Office that would run on Linux. My source for this was an in-person interview I conducted through an interpreter with a Russian programmer ... in Israel. (I was there for work.) He was looking for a job and had interviewed at Mainsoft, where he was told about the Linux port of Office. Obviously, it never happened, but it was an amazing story, and while Microsoft officially denied the claims, I know what was really going on. Now, so do you.

Also controversial was my stance on Microsoft's US antitrust trial, or as us old-timers now call it, Microsoft's first antitrust trial. (Author Ken Auletta called it "World War 3.0." Nice.) "How can one reconcile a desire to use products from a company that practices business like a modern version of the Mafia?" I asked at the time. The thing is, Microsoft hurt customers as well as competitors: Its rapid integration of the then-immature Internet Explorer into Windows, in an ultimately successful bid to dethrone Netscape, is just one example. I had hoped to see Microsoft broken into two or three companies at the time, and while that never happened, I still wonder how different today's tech market would be if it happened.

Speaking of which, I'm edging up on 1000 words. Today, Windows 7 corrects Vista's mistakes, just like XP did for Windows 2000. Microsoft is shipping a new Exchange version, but I bet it will be more popular in the cloud than on-premise. And antitrust is an even bigger issue in the tech industry, though Microsoft is finally over the hump. (Google, you're up.) As for Office on Linux? Well, things really haven't changed there. That's still not happening either.

An edited version of this article appeared in the December 29, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul