Past was guide for changes to Windows development

Microsoft has engaged in an extended public mea culpa about Vista as it talks up its successor.

About a year ago on its Redmond, Washington, campus, a member of Microsoft's Windows Vista team met with a group of journalists to face some tough questions about the OS.

At the time, it was clear Vista was not going to be the great success Microsoft had predicted, as many of the company's critical business customers were beginning to reveal they would wait for the next release of Microsoft's client OS instead of upgrading corporate desktops to Vista.

Among questions posed to Microsoft that day were how the company could have gotten Vista so wrong after five-plus years of development, and how much longer Microsoft could justify putting out major software releases that needed substantial bug fixes before they were fit for enterprise deployment.

It has long been the mantra among IT professionals not to "go out and buy that first release" of Windows, but "wait until the service pack comes out because there are so many bugs and issues," said longtime Microsoft partner and customer Scott Noles, director of technology and education at Microsoft customer Kinex Medical, a medical rehabilitation center in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

The same rang true for Vista, and even for its predecessor Windows XP, a solid OS still in wide use that nonetheless also required a major service-pack release to deal with critical security issues that plagued enterprise users.

Microsoft had no answers that day to the questions it faced about Vista. Fast-forward a year later to now, however, and the company does.

For the past several months, Microsoft has engaged in an extended public mea culpa about Vista, and in the past two weeks alone has given a series of press interviews to explain how it changed the development process of Windows 7, the forthcoming client release, to learn from the mistakes it made in the past.

"We know we're still learning, but we always want to make tomorrow better than yesterday was," Mike Nash, corporate vice president of Windows product management, said about the development of Windows 7 in a recent interview.

He said Microsoft's move in March 2006 to put former head of Office development Steven Sinofsky in charge of Windows development was a key driver of changes in the process. Sinofsky is now senior vice president for the Windows and Windows Live Engineering Group, and Nash credits him for bringing order to the group.

Vista failed among business customers for a few key reasons. One was that its premium hardware requirements made it incompatible with PCs that companies already had running in their IT environments. That meant that upgrading to Vista meant that businesses also had to update hardware, a more expensive proposition than recycling existing machines.

Another was that Microsoft peripheral and software partners were not fully prepared for the release, which means many third-party products on which business users rely didn't work with Vista out of the gate.

Gavriella Schuster, a senior director of Windows product management, cited the "stop-and-start nature" of Vista's development process as contributing to partners' lack of preparedness for the final release. Microsoft stopped Vista's development in the middle of the process to overhaul the security of the OS, a move that delayed its final release.

Microsoft has changed how it built Windows 7 in a few ways to learn from errors of the past, it says. First, the company decided to "define a feature set early on" and only share that feature set with partners and customers when the company is confident that they will go into the final OS, Nash said.

This should avoid any confusion among Microsoft customers and partners as to what new features Windows 7 will have, and also will give Microsoft a chance to stabilize those features as much as possible.

"We made the ecosystem's job really hard [with Vista]," Nash acknowledged, because so much changed in Vista between the beta release and its release candidate, and then again between the release candidate and the final release. Making Windows 7's release milestones more predictable should ease the preparation process.

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