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mac.column.ted: The one where I visit Microsoft

mac.column.ted: The one where I visit Microsoft

by Ted Landau

January 2004

The one where I visit Microsoft

Now it can be told.

Last November, a week or so before Thanksgiving, I visited Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond. Actually, it was more than a visit. It was closer to a press junket. I was invited by Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU for short and pronounced "Mac-Boo"). The MacBU is responsible for all of Microsoft's Macintosh products. They generously picked up the complete tab for my trip. I say this up front because it can be hard to be impartial when you are writing about such events. It can feel a bit like writing a thank you note for getting a new iPod mini and adding that you didn't like the color choice and you would have rather had the full-size iPod anyway. Tacky.

Dubbed the Macintosh Business Unit Media Summit, I was joined by nine other members of the Macintosh media community, representing a cross-section of several Mac-only publications and Web sites. I was a bit surprised that there were no attendees from more general media (such as tech writers for the New York Times or BusinessWeek). Had such people been invited but declined to attend? This subject never came up, but I suspect that the answer is no. Which led to the big question of the day: "Why?" More specifically, why did Microsoft decide to spend the time, money and energy to stage this event for this particular group of media?

Those of us in attendance posed this question directly to our hosts. They replied that there was no mysterious purpose or hidden agenda. They simply wanted us, the Mac-focused media, to have the opportunity to see exactly how the Macintosh Business Unit puts together its software products - and to do so in a relaxed and extended atmosphere - in contrast to the brief phone calls or Macworld Expo meetings that otherwise represent how we communicate. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to be skeptical of such "politically correct" public relations explanations. And I guessed that I would have heard something a bit different if I had been a fly on the wall when this meeting was being discussed by the Microsoft staff. Exactly what I might have heard, however, is still not clear.

One of my initial guesses related to the fact that we had to sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) as a condition of attendance. This was because Microsoft intended to give us a sneak preview of Microsoft Office 2004. The NDA expired with the start of Macworld Expo - which is why I can now write about all of this.

Oddly, all we saw of Office 2004 that day in November was one new feature of one component of Office: Entourage's Project Center. This feature allows you to group all related material (e.g., calendar appointments, email messages, documents on your desktop and address contacts) for a given task into a single project. From the Project Center window, you can track, update and manage all the related data. You can even have newly created items automatically added to a project. It's a promising new feature (although it may take a few updates before it fully realizes its potential). But it hardly seemed enough to justify bringing all of us out to Redmond. If Microsoft wanted us here primarily to see an advance look at Office, I would have expected to be shown more than just Project Center.

On the other hand, our hosts did give us the promised closer look at how a version of Office goes from conception to reality. It all takes place in the MacBU building. Yes, the MacBU staff have their own building! But to keep things in perspective, there are many many buildings on Microsoft's campus. The MacBU people told us that it is not rare to find that staff in other buildings are not even aware that a Macintosh Business Unit exists.

Prior to my arrival, I half expected the MacBU building to be like a small airplane hanger with an assembly line of programmers in constant motion. In fact, the building is reasonably small, almost cozy, mainly consisting of offices and meeting rooms. A core group of maybe a dozen or so people seem to do the lion's share of the work (although the entire staff of the MacBU is about 160).

The bulk of our day consisted of a walk-through of the development process. Highlights included:

  • The "build" room. Not much larger than a walk-in closet, this is where the daily builds of the next version of Office are put together. There are about 15 Macs here (almost all Power Mac G4s). As different developers complete their latest revision to their component of Office, they send their code here to be combined with all of the other components. At the end of the day, a new build is created.

  • The Mac Lab. There are about 85 Macs here, representing at least one of almost every Mac model ever built - all the way back to the original 128K Mac. It is here that each build is put through a series of over 30,000 automated tests designed to check for bugs. The results are entered into a constantly updated database. Each developer gets these results, so that they can check to see if their component of Office contributed to any of the reported problems.

  • Usability testing lab. It is here that Mac users (not Microsoft employees) are observed performing a series of tasks with Office. If a user gets stuck or has unexpected difficulty at any point, this signals that a further refinement of the interface is needed.

All-in-all, an impressive operation. And I am sure this process eradicates many bugs and helps design a more user-friendly product. Still, I can think of at least a few documented bugs in Word (as an example) that have persisted over several updates. I would have thought that this testing, together with feedback from users, would prevent such persisting bugs. Evidently not entirely.

The one other segment of the day was a brief series of presentations by key staff from the Business Unit: Roz Ho (General Manager), Tim McDonough (Director of Marketing and Business Development), and Jessica Sommer (MacBU Product Manager). The overriding theme was to emphasize the MacBU's commitment to the Mac platform. This was followed by a Q&A session. Many of our questions revolved around a single theme: The strange-bedfellows relationship between Apple and Microsoft: "Do the MacBU staff ever feel as if they are General Motors employees working to make better products for Volkswagen?" "Was there any reason to worry that Microsoft might shut down the MacBU if Apple started becoming 'too successful' as a competitor?" Within the limits of realizing we were asking Microsoft employees to offer potentially critical or confidential information about their employer, our questions were answered reasonably directly. The crux of the answers was this: "The MacBU, although only representing a small part of Microsoft's overall revenue, is still very profitable. In fact, if it were an independent company, it would be one of the biggest software companies in the country. Microsoft has no plans to abandon the MacBU. Period."

Reflecting on the day's events, I am more inclined to accept at face value Microsoft's explanation for why they held this "summit" than I had been when I arrived that day. At a minimum, an event like this helps foster "good feelings" towards Microsoft. If you can afford the money (and if Microsoft can't afford it, no one can), this could be reason enough to make the investment. In any case, it's clear that the MacBU people are solidly behind the Mac platform and are genuinely interested in making great Mac products. They wanted a chance to demonstrate this to us "up close and personal." If that's what they hoped to accomplish, they succeeded.

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Ted Landau is the creator of MacFixIt and author of the soon-to-be-published Mac OS X Help Desk (Peachpit, 2004). To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here.

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