Clouds over Redmond

With all the trouble getting Vista out, Microsoft must find a way to release future Windows updates on a reasonable schedule.

The latest delay for Windows Vista highlights a mounting challenge for Microsoft--finding a way to update its most important product on any kind of reasonable schedule.

With all the setbacks, it will be more than five years between Windows XP and Windows Vista. And for even that delivery schedule, Microsoft had to scale back many of the major advances that were planned for the new operating system.

Although Windows has largely maintained its dominant share of the operating system market, the software maker's inability to regularly update the product poses a growing risk to its cash cow.

"Microsoft is going to be feeling more pressure, especially as applications get to be more OS-agnostic," or not tied to a particular operating system, Gartner analyst Michael Silver said.

Microsoft has long spoken out about its need to be constantly innovating, with executives pointing to the fate that bedeviled IBM in the 1970s and 1980s, when it became seen as a lumbering giant in a field of nimbler and more agile competitors.

"I've been around IBM, and I saw how IBM overdid it," Steve Ballmer said in a 2003 interview with The Seattle Times. In that interview, the Microsoft CEO described the opportunities that IBM's slowed pace created for Microsoft when the PC came around, and talked about Microsoft's need to avoid that fate. "Maybe we will, maybe we won't--but we have strategy control, we have technology control, we've got financial control," he said.

Of course, recognizing the dangers and being able to escape the same fate are two different things.

One of the key problems is that the two halves of creating a new OS--programming and testing--are both getting longer to accomplish. On the development side, Microsoft has spent years re-architecting its software development practices in order to boost security, and such rigor also takes time. On top of that, the time spent testing new code has increased, although automated tools have helped some. Chairman Bill Gates noted on Tuesday that as many as half of the worker-hours put into Vista have gone into testing.

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Microsoft also faces the challenge of trying to support all of the hundreds of millions of Windows machines out there. The company frequently takes pride in showing off how its latest and greatest operating system can run even the oldest applications.

"We are very backwards-compatible people," Gates said at an Office developer conference this week.

Apple Computer, which has taken a very different approach, has not been afraid to cut support for older Mac machines and software in its efforts to modernize its operating system. The results are a narrower security footprint and a much smaller number of types of systems against which to test.

Michael Cherry, a Directions on Microsoft analyst, said that although Microsoft is in a somewhat different situation, it can take lessons from Apple. The Mac seller took a one-time hit when it made major architectural changes with OS X and since then has focused on more modest, but noticeable, feature enhancements.

"There haven't been huge, massive changes," Cherry said. "But people have looked at them and said, 'Nice job. Let's buy it.'"

Cherry said that Microsoft shouldn't need to make significant changes to most of the underlying architecture of Windows at this point--only occasional upgrades should be needed, to add things such as new networking protocols. "Everything else should be about putting fancy sinks on top of the plumbing," Cherry said.

With Vista, Microsoft originally hoped to make major changes to the underlying code, adding in a new file storage mechanism called WinFS, along with all-new graphics and communications methods. It eventually had to pull out WinFS entirely and scale back several other architectural changes in order to make the project more manageable.

In the future, Microsoft may well look to focus more energy in interim releases on updating some of the companion programs that are part of Windows, as opposed to the core operating system code. Gates talked on Monday of the need, for example, to update Internet Explorer more often.

But Cherry said it's more than just a different approach that is needed.

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