Allchin still worries about Vista

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

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
8 min read
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 News.com 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.

The system requirements guidance all along has been 512MB of memory (to run Vista), but earlier on a lot of people at Microsoft, I think yourself included, expressed a lot of confidence that the final version should run on systems with far less memory. Well, we got the final requirements this week, and it requires 512 megs.
Allchin: If I said it, I was wrong. I don't know if I said it, but if I did I was wrong. XP definitely works on lower memory. Our performance analysis today says that on low-memory machines, XP beats Vista, and the more memory you give it, Vista beats XP, and it's just because we're better at memory management, but we don't work as good on low (memory PCs) because we just have more stuff that we've got in the system.

One of the things that's very clear is Vista loves memory, and the more memory you put, the faster it will (be). It will not only be faster, but it will learn and get faster over time. So more memory is just a good thing for it.

If you had to offer a list of a few lessons that the whole Vista development process has given you, what would be at the top? Allchin: Well, since about August or whatever--the middle of 2004--when we reset, I think we did most everything right. Before then, there has been a large postmortem on paper that I personally wrote on all the things that we needed to improve, which dealt with changing the engineering process, that had to do with dependencies, what dependencies you take at what levels and the projects at what level in the system, layering. Of all of the issues, I really think dependencies are probably the biggest one. I think it's an illusion and a mirage to say, "Oh, there's a better way to do this, we'll just ship software on the Internet, somehow the quality will improve and we'll do it faster." It doesn't work that way.

I think it's an illusion and a mirage to say, "Oh, there's a better way to do this, we'll just ship software on the Internet, somehow the quality will improve and we'll do it faster." It doesn't work that way.

I do believe controlling dependency is something that for Windows is super, super important, and if you control dependencies, you make so much better progress. I mean, look at the server; the server with its new role--we'll set it up so that each of those roles can operate independently with a smaller development team that's working just on that role, so they don't have to worry about the others.

So when you look forward and you say, "Oh, it's just getting more and more complex"--the fact of making those things more modular and more so they can be independent but still work together in a common way through the management console and the like--but if you do that, you end up where the teams can be smaller, not as monolithic, and make faster progress. The same thing can be done on the client side.

In the future, more modularization, fewer dependencies are the answer. I'm a believer that cars or software, both will get more complicated in the future, and at the same time they will get simpler; you just have to mechanize, modernize the way you build them and the way the parts fit together. In an auto, the bus structure of how you plug in is pretty well-defined; you don't really get to mess around with the bus structure of the car. And so they have a lot of replaceability and they have a structure that you can plug in to. We just need to do more and more of it.

It seems that virtualization opens up some doors here. Apple Computer has obviously got a much smaller array of applications that they had to deal with this, but both when they moved to Mac OS X and to some degree when they moved to Intel chips, they said, "We need to make some changes forward, and this is how we're going to preserve compatibility." It would be a mammoth task, but is it something Microsoft is going to have to do at some point?
Allchin: I don't necessarily think that we would do it the same way as Apple did, because for a variety of technical reasons their problem is much simpler. But I can tell you that the top problem--I did a paper on the future of Windows--the top problem is this application compatibility, and we have a team who is doing prototypes for how we may have an answer to that in the future. We've got prototypes running with several different solutions about how to do this. It's a very complicated problem, more so than in the Apple case.