Allchin still worries about Vista

Man behind development of newest Windows says there's still plenty of work to do before shipment.

SEATTLE--It's still a tight squeeze, but Jim Allchin says there's reason to have hope that Microsoft may yet meet its latest deadline to ship Vista. That said, he knows better than to relax.

Allchin, who's guided many Windows releases in years past, plans to retire once Vista ships. In an interview, he said there are still plenty of things he'd like to see before the operating system is released, including better performance and more application compatibility.

On Tuesday, Microsoft released a broader test version of the software, Beta 2, that will be made available to millions of testers. "All indications are good, and I spend most of my day worried," Allchin said. "But I think getting people using the thing is a huge, huge step."

Vista has been delayed several times, most recently in March, when Microsoft announced that the release would miss this year's holiday shopping season. Market researcher Gartner has already gone on the record as saying it thinks Microsoft will miss the January deadline. Officially, Microsoft has stuck to its January target, though Bill Gates didn't mention a specific month when he announced Beta 2 on Tuesday. Meanwhile, CEO Steve Ballmer appeared to hedge his bets Wednesday at a Tokyo news conference.

"We think we are on track for shipping early in the year," Ballmer said, according to the IDG News Service. "We've talked about the month, but we get a chance to critically assess all of the feedback we'll get from this beta release then confirm or move the launch date a few weeks."

Allchin remains optimistic, however. In an interview at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), the co-president of Microsoft's platform and services division sat down with CNET to discuss progress on Vista, what's next and some lessons learned from the recent stumbles.

Q: How comfortable are you that Microsoft can meet its current target of releasing Vista to manufacturing in November, in time for a January consumer launch?
Allchin: Well, we're feeling fine right now. We'll see how the feedback is on the beta. We know a set of issues that we need to continue to work on--XP upgrades, performance, application compatibility, the prompts for elevation--those are all hot areas that we either have work ongoing already (or are) addressing some in (the next test version) or we need more feedback. So I'm feeling OK.

The problem here is that we have to have immediate turnaround, because we're on superdeadline.

Quality is what you've talked about as the main consideration. You've been through a fair number of these launches--where are things at from a quality perspective?
Allchin: Much higher. I mean, if I look at this beta release, I would say there are some scenarios that will have issues, and there will be some (application compatibility issues), but if I look at the core code quality, it's much higher. Now it's a question of--it's a lot to work on still, in terms of performance and app compat (application compatibility), and make sure we have the right device driver coverage, and it's just: Find the issue, fix it; find the issue, fix it; and just as fast as we can. So in terms of the raw security, safety and performance, and that sort of stuff, it's coming together OK.

Two weeks ago, Brian Valentine was doing this bug hunt, encouraging workers to take Vista home and install it on their home machines. How did that go?
Allchin: It went very well. It was a good thing to do before we did the beta, we did fix a couple of problems that we found by getting people to put it on their home machines. And so it went fine. I think it's all part of the beta testing; we just need to get more people to use it now. The thing that's most important right now is for people to give us the feedback fast.

There's not a lot of time between now and RTM (release to manufacturing--Microsoft's planned finalizing of the Vista code, slated for the fall).
Allchin: No, no. We have a very short window. There are many things in our favor, which is quite different than other releases though. And there's never been a system that has this much instrumentation in it. You plug in a device, and we don't have the driver, we know about it. You have an app blow up, we know about it. There's all this instrumentation built in. So instead of having to have people explain to us that they couldn't find this device, we will know, and therefore we can categorize the devices that we're missing or application areas. There are places that they can type in even free-form comments--that's easy for us; we have some machine learning stuff to be able to go over that and spotlight down where we have problems. We never had a system to provide this much data to us about what people are doing.

What's the remaining schedule for Vista? Is it Beta 2, then Release Candidate 1 and then straight to manufacturing?
Allchin: We will do something in between there. If you go back into XP, you'll see that we did pretty much--we did an RC 1, we did an RC 2 and we did an RTM. Right now our thinking is to do about the same thing. How broad we make that next one after RC 1, even if we call it RC 2, that hasn't been made, but we will do a drop about a month after we do RC 1 to some set of people. The problem here is that we have to have immediate turnaround, because we're on superdeadline then.

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