Gates on the speed of Windows updates

As the shift to Vista drags on, the software honcho notes that for consumers, Microsoft is "sort of their IT department."

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
3 min read
Nobody ever said software development was easy.

In the wake of Microsoft's decision to delay the widespread release of Vista, Chairman Bill Gates met with CNET News.com and discussed the software company's struggle to ship Vista, the burden of backward compatibility, and how new features will be constantly added to Windows. Below is an excerpt--for the full interview, click here:

Q: Microsoft did a lot of work to combine the consumer and business versions of Windows into one code base with Windows XP, and most people find it a lot more stable. Some folks, after last week's decision to delay Vista were saying maybe Microsoft should go back to having more releases for consumers and fewer for businesses. Do you have a sense of what it is that people want in the next version of Windows? Is it different for consumers than businesses?

Gates: Well, businesses often move in waves where they'll upgrade many things at the same time, their own applications, Office, Windows. They like to roll things out in groups so that the business processes or user training, the support, gets aligned around a whole stack of software. And so you have businesses that are very quick to get everything out and you'll have businesses that tend to lag in getting things out, and then you'll have other businesses, just because of the rhythm they'll hit our cycles when they want to make changes or they'll be off our cycle. So sometimes they'll be very state-of-the-art and sometimes they'll be a few years behind.

Security issues have made it more imperative to get up on the latest technology, and so that's really meant us making it simpler to test what pieces you have in your environment, how easy it's going to be to make that transition. There's a lot we're doing to make the transition easier, and there's more we can do to really make it rote for somebody to say, OK, I have this in my installed base, let's see which of those Microsoft has already tested, let's see which of those are unique to us--let's have things to automate the testing that we feel we need to do for those things that are unique to us.

Q: Does it make sense to have Windows be something that is updated like Office on a pretty regular basis, regardless of the level of innovation that's there? Should there be a new version of Windows every 18 months?

Gates: (Features) like the browser user interface, the media capability, some of those things you can have updates more often than even every 18 months and users who want that can download those things because they don't affect compatibility. Whereas the file system or the scheduler, the rights protection pieces, the device driver interfaces--those you're never going to modify more often than every three years, or in many of those cases you want to leave those things alone for way longer than that.

Take device-driver interfaces. You might let there be additional APIs, but you're going to still need to run most of the drivers that were written 10 years ago. So layering is the key here, and consumers may upgrade some of these things like the browser more often than businesses. That's hard to characterize. The one nice thing we've seen with consumers is they really use Auto Update, and so we're sort of their IT department in terms of updating. It's more complex for businesses. But even there the progress over the last four years of getting SMS (Systems Management Server) to be deployed and used and understood--how they take the updates in and when they pass them along to their systems--we've done super well on that, but it's not as simple as somebody just choosing to have Auto Update come from us.

To read the full text of the interview with Gates, along with Doug Burgum, chairman of Microsoft Business Solutions, click here.