Prepping XP for the home stretch

Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Microsoft's new operating system, has been at the center of all things good and bad about the latest upgrade out of Redmond.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
7 min read
Just as the second trial version of Windows XP was being readied for release last weekend, Microsoft again found itself on the hot seat.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., earlier this week pressed the Justice Department to delay the Oct. 25 debut of Windows XP. At the same time, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC over privacy concerns about the operating system.

Last but not least, InterTrust has a lawsuit out asking a California court to stop Windows XP from shipping, claiming that Microsoft's product-activation technology violates four of its patents.

And so it was that Greg Sullivan crossed off another week as he moved that much closer to the Oct. 25 launch of Microsoft's biggest product debut in years.

The lead product manager for Microsoft's Windows division recently celebrated his 11th anniversary at the company. But with the demands of the XP project consuming more and more of his time, the 36-year-old joked that his tenure at Microsoft really should be measured in dog years, which would put him at the ripe old age of 252.

Sullivan's role is to provide the public face of XP, shuttling between industry partners, customers and press. But it's been a demanding role.

Earlier this year, the company, responding to critics, did an about-face on including Smart Tags, which were designed to offer pull-down menus that could connect to related content in other Microsoft programs or on the Web. Meanwhile, the drumbeat of antitrust and privacy complaints about XP put Sullivan at the center of all things good and bad about the latest operating system upgrade out of Redmond.

CNET News.com caught up with Sullivan after his latest road trip to get an update on the progress of the operating system and on the interesting times he finds himself living in.

Q: How many people are working on the development of XP?
A: It's in the thousands.

And so the biggest project you've had going in years?
Certainly it's the most important thing going on at Microsoft...the biggest thing since Windows 95.

Why is Microsoft making such a big deal out of a fairly minor upgrade to Windows Me? The only real difference is the GUI.
That couldn't be any more wrong. It's so vastly different--from the very foundation of the product up to everything you can do and what it enables. The reason we're making a big deal is that it is a dramatic difference it will make for a dramatic improvement.

There's a lot of misunderstanding. You don't need Passport to use XP. For consumers or businesses?
Both. We have two implementations. Windows XP Professional will meet the needs of enterprise professionals. For folks at home, this is clearly a huge leap from Windows Me.

The company said the second release candidate, or trial version, of Windows XP will be released Friday or over the weekend. The final release is scheduled to ship Oct. 25. How long do you think it will take to debug the product before it's ready to be shipped to manufacturers? We're coming down the home stretch. When we are in release candidate mode, we'll have builds in production that are virtually ready for release. We're just making a few performance tweaks and tightening up the code.

When all's said and done, how much space will XP take up?
That depends on the installation and the features you install. The system requires a 1.5-gig drive. We're still finalizing the code and getting to what its final footprint will be. It's in a range...from 400 megabytes to a little over 1 gigabyte.

Microsoft doesn't have the best record in the world for hitting deadlines. Are you lead pipe-cinch confident about getting the product out the door for an Oct. 25 debut?
Yeah, we are very, very confident that the development work will be where it needs to be. At this point in the process, we're racing toward the finish line and have a good feel for where we're at.

Will all the necessary drivers have shipped by then, or do you expect that at least some applications will break because drivers are missing?
No, we'll have incredible device support--vastly more than we had with Windows 2000. The bits we ship in the box can be augmented and added to, and the new things can be made available via Windows update.

Let me ask you about the larger context in which XP is arriving to market. Senator Charles Schumer wants to stop Microsoft from shipping Windows XP unless you scale back your plans. Meanwhile, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a complaint with the FTC about bundling Passport into the OS. In light of what's going on, will Microsoft need to revisit its product plans for XP?
The question of maintaining the privacy and security of customer information, whether in regard to .Net or Passport, is an issue we absolutely need to address to maintain customer trust. That's probably a question for some of our legal guys. We're focused on delivering great experiences to customers with XP. And we build product to do that.

But do you think the concerns surrounding the privacy implications of XP are overblown?
Yeah, there's a lot of misunderstanding. You don't need Passport to use XP. (People) will be offered the opportunity to sign up. The only information you need is an e-mail address and a password so it can be authenticated. So yes, I think (the concerns) are overblown.

Well, the argument is that as XP becomes the primary way for consumers to access the Internet--given Microsoft's OS dominance--the Passport authentication system will put an extraordinary amount of personal user information in Microsoft's hands. Do you reject that?
Passport is an authentication mechanism. Every AOL user uses the AOL authentication system to sign in. Many Web sites ask you to sign in with a password. This is just an authentication mechanism.

Can you talk about the security aspect, then? Once the information is in the cloud, so to speak, is there any way to guarantee that it's 100 percent secure from being breached?
The question of maintaining the privacy and security of customer information, whether in regard to .Net or Passport, is an issue we absolutely need to address to maintain customer trust and have them perceive that as being valuable. One of the core tenets of our strategy is that the user is in control of their information, and who has access to it and under what conditions. We absolutely have to earn the trust of users and make sure they're very comfortable with the services they sign up for.

Go back to bundling for a second. Is there a limit to how much functionality is going to be included in the OS?
We develop Windows to meet customer needs and make sure people who buy Windows PCs are happy. So as long as we focus on making products that make customers happy and provide value, then we do the right thing.

So I take it the answer is no?
It's a philosophical discussion, and it doesn't make sense to put arbitrary restraints on meeting those customer expectations. People expect their PCs to do a lot of things, and XP is going to make them real happy.

Still, if you look at the history of the computer industry, a lot of companies have gone out of business because the software functionality they provided was ultimately bundled into the operating system by Microsoft.
But Windows is a platform that creates a tremendous opportunity. We publish our APIs, deliver software tools and training (for the OS), and created a thriving industry for folks around Windows.

Well, to take an example: You've included some nifty photo-managing features in XP. If I'm Adobe, shouldn't I be worried?
No, not at all. The photo capabilities in Windows XP are fully complementary with Adobe. It doesn't have the full high-end photo capability. It makes it easy to acquire, manage and share files of JPEG image files. Adobe builds on top of that.

In this version of XP, you decided to get rid of Smart Tags. Do you think that's something Microsoft will include in future versions of the product?
We're committed to the technology and the idea of enhancing the user experience. Smart Tags is a great example. We do need to think how to work with the industry and content providers to make sure that everyone sees it as an advantage.

Might Smart Tags get revived in future versions of XP?
It's wide open in terms of how it might get implemented in the future.

OK, so what's going to be your pitch to convince people to upgrade to Windows XP?
People ask me what's my favorite feature of XP. And I'm only being a little obtuse when I say the NT kernel. Anybody using Windows 95 or 98 or Me is going to notice such a vast difference in the experience they have with their PCs, in the way that it is rock solid and connects to all kinds of devices and how smart it is.

What's a reasonable expectation--25 percent of the installed base? 50 percent? 75 percent?--that you expect will decide to upgrade within the first year of release?
We have internal projections but we don't comment on them.