In an interview at the NEWS.COM offices, Microsoft executive vice president Steve Ballmer, generally considered to be Bill Gates's right-hand man, touched on several topics, including the Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit, the company's friends and rivals, and the long road ahead to NT 5.0.
Addressing questions about the complaints about IE 4.0, Ballmer acknowledged that the browser team was just as concerned with getting the product out quickly as it was with shipping a quality product.
"I'm not trying to say there's some excuse for bugs, but the reality is, you're always making a set of trade-offs about the probability of problems--unknown problems--versus when you ship," Ballmer said.
Ballmer said the expectations for quality in a browser are not as high as those for other software products.
"Customers have different expectations for a major new Windows release than the expectations of leading-edge guys who take the first version of new browsers," Ballmer said. "The [IE 4] team thinks they made the right set of trade-offs, and I think they know they're doing some more work to continue to improve that product."
IE 4.0 was released on September 30. Microsoft just released version 4.01 of the browser, an update that is meant to fix many of the bugs in the 4.0 release as well as add features for disabled users.
Applying the lessons of IE 4.0, Ballmer said Microsoft wouldn't ship NT 5.0 until it was absolutely ready. When asked about a ship date, he replied, "I'd say roughly, roughly a year from now. Roughly."
The directory services are coming into shape, but the real hang-up, according to Ballmer, is that the management services bundled under the "zero administration" rubric were late getting started. In response to the network computer (NC) and the increased attention to reducing the cost of owning, managing, and maintaining desktops in the corporate environment, Microsoft's zero administration initiative, or ZAW, is meant to frame Windows as an easy and cheap way to run applications and services over a network.
When asked why the company wouldn't release NT 5 without the ZAW features then patch them in later, Ballmer replied that the operating system would be a hard sell without those capabilities.
"Without the ZAW and Intellimirror stuff, I don't think we're doing the seminal step forward that people expect out of NT 5," he said. "It's absolutely essential we get that product right. If it's a few months later, I'd hate it--I'd love to have it now--but we're better off getting it right."
When released, Intellimirror is supposed to give users the choice of not only saving their files but also replicating their entire desktop to a server. It will require large servers, since the server and workstation communicate to resolve versions of files before a user can access their data.
Ballmer also stressed the company line that NT, not Windows 98, was the business desktop, although some Windows 98 product managers tout the benefits of the operating system to certain niches of corporate buyers.
Ballmer took the opportunity to list Microsoft's friends and competitors in various markets. The competitor list was no surprise: Netscape Communications, Oracle, IBM, and Sun Microsystems--with Corel thrown in, more surprisingly.
As for Apple Computer, Ballmer called it "friendly" but downplayed the significance for Microsoft's development efforts on the Macintosh platform.
"It's a business that's been shrinking over the last couple of years," he said. "I can't tell you I think about it that often because it's not the most critical business issue for us."