Microsoft Software Development

Associated Press
Shoppers in Tokyo examined Windows 95 just after midnight on Nov. 23, 1995, the day the Japanese version of the software made its debut.

Will the Next Version of Windows Be Worth the Wait?

TEN years ago, Microsoft unveiled Windows 95 in a way that suggested that the product’s arrival was no less momentous than when humans stood upright for the first time. The company spent about $200 million introducing the operating system. That paid for festivities on the Microsoft campus (with Jay Leno as M.C.), rights to use the Rolling Stones song "Start Me Up" in a global advertising campaign and permission to bathe the Empire State Building at night with the Windows logo. It also loaded The Times of London with Windows 95 advertising that day, making the newspaper a one-day freebie, a first in its 307 years.

What was remarkable about the Windows 95 introduction was the acquiescence of customers, who participated so willingly in the spectacle. Microsoft arranged for retail outlets to open at midnight on the day the system would first be available, a stunt that proved as irresistible as klieg lights at a Hollywood premiere. One chain counted some 50,000 people lined up at its stores across the country.

These people were chasing an operating system, of all things – plumbing that serves a necessary function, to be sure, but of no more intrinsic interest than the pipes that snake below the floorboards of a house. In 1995, however, Microsoft managed to make the mundane appear life-changing. The Seattle Times quoted one happy midnight customer, standing with his wife, who predicted that "this is going to enhance our marriage."

Windows XP, introduced in 2001, could not match Windows 95’s remarkable debut. We can hope that XP’s successor, which has the code name "Longhorn" and is scheduled for release next year, will appear quietly, bringing us closer to the day when users need know no more about a PC’s operating system than they do of the embedded software in a cellphone.

Longhorn’s gestation has already extended much longer than originally planned. Rumors of its existence surfaced in 2001, when the system was said to have been chosen as a quick "intermediate" update of XP. Time passed, and the news media were permitted a sneak preview. But completion of even this, the interim release, came no closer. Determined to get it out the door by 2006, Microsoft decided in 2004 to remove a new file system for organizing data on the hard drive, what the company had earlier promoted as the heart of the new system. If and when this feature ever appears, it is unlikely to enhance anyone’s marriage.

Regretful that it had announced an important feature that it subsequently had to remove, the company decided to remain quiet about other aspects for as long as possible. Microsoft has given software developers beta versions of two new components, for graphics and Web services, but these will be available for Windows XP customers, too. The company has yet to say what exactly will be a Longhorn-only improvement.

Microsoft’s reticence cannot last much longer. In two weeks, it will be host for a conference for hardware vendors, setting down the minimum specifications that must be met in order to run Longhorn. You may be eager to know whether that PC on your desk will meet the specs. If your PC does not, it’s unlikely that you will replace it just to be able to run the latest version of Windows. Michael Cherry, a senior analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a consulting firm based in Kirkland, Wash., observes that many PC users now treat their computers like TV sets.

"Unless the TV doesn’t turn on," he says, "they won’t replace them."

Mr. Cherry expressed skepticism about the appeal of enhanced graphics for him and others who spend most of their time using a word processor, an e-mail program and a browser. "How are 3-D graphics really going to change my life?" he wondered.

Another analyst, Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Group, greets the system with more enthusiasm, predicting that Longhorn will provide "vast improvements in security." We can cheer this happy prospect, but at the same time we must ignore the snide laughs of Macintosh users who have yet to encounter a virus. No matter how solid and secure Longhorn’s code appears, Microsoft will need a lot of independent voices providing verification and reassurance.

The professional caretakers of corporate PC’s seem rather leery of Microsoft’s promises these days, spurning the most recent package of security improvements and bug fixes offered for Windows XP. Last week, AssetMetrix Research Labs, a research firm based in Ottawa, released the results of a survey of 251 North American companies, measuring the adoption of Windows XP. Only 7 percent of companies had actively embraced the latest improvements, Service Pack 2, released six months ago. The improvements, it turns out, introduce software-compatibility problems. These can be overcome with tinkering but not without aggravation and additional cost for fixes that should not have been necessary in the first place.

Compatibility issues will loom larger in the future. Longhorn is unlikely to co-exist peaceably with existing software that sits atop the operating system. Mr. Enderle said that gaining enhanced security necessitates making a break with the complementary software of the past, which means "compatibility is going to suffer."

Windows XP may prove to be a tenacious paterfamilias, unwilling to move aside for the next generation. Security holes notwithstanding, it is the most stable version of Windows to date. That very stability will make it difficult for the company to market Longhorn as a release more important than XP itself, a prediction that Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, made in 2003.

Predictions do not fare well when the computing world moves faster than the lumbering mass of Microsoft’s Windows division. Linux constitutes an alternative model, employing fleet feet and frequent releases.

Mark Lucovsky, a software engineer, recently described in his blog the process of writing code for a project like Longhorn and the long wait before it reaches a customer’s PC. First, a bug fix or added feature is deposited in a source code control system, where it may sit for years. Eventually it is transferred into a product release and pressed into CD’s. Months pass, even in the final stage, from release to manufacturing to arrival at the customer’s receiving department. Slow.

By contrast, engineers who work on improvements for a newer form of operating system, the software that powers Web sites, can roll out work almost instantaneously. Mr. Lucovsky recounts how a friend at Amazon discovered a performance issue, found a fix, tested it and had it in place, all in a day. "Not a single customer had to download a bag of bits, answer any silly questions, prove that they are not software thieves, reboot their computers, etc.," he wrote. "The software was shipped to them, and they didn’t have to lift a finger."

MR. LUCOVSKY’S remarks are of interest because he knows a thing or two about developing operating systems. He was a senior architect of Windows NT, was the chief keeper of the keys for the source code and was named by Microsoft in 2000 as one among its inaugural batch of distinguished engineers. Recently, after 16 years at Microsoft, however, he said he decided that he had been wrong in thinking that Microsoft knew best "how to ship software."

It was other companies, the ones who understood the potential of the Internet and software-as-a-service, that were best able to deliver benefits to customers "efficiently and quickly," he said. He resigned from Microsoft and has joined one of those other companies: Google.

Randall Stross is a historian and author based in Silicon Valley. E-mail:

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