My colleague Mary Jo Foley has her ear to the ground in Redmond, and when it comes to Windows 7 she's hearing ... nothing. Under new Windows boss Steven Sinofsky, she notes, the information lockdown is nearly airtight, and some customers are starting to complain:
I’m hearing increasing dissatisfaction from Microsoft customers, testers and other sources typically in the insider track that Microsoft still hasn’t shared any Windows 7 information. The silence is deafening — and disconcerting — they say.... [T]he worry is that Microsoft is moving full-steam-ahead to build a Windows 7 that won’t have a whole lot of input from outsiders. After the compatibility and marketing nightmares that have plagued Vista, one would think Microsoft might be interested in letting its users have more sway on what they really want from a new version of Windows.
For what it's worth, I'm hearing almost nothing about Windows 7, either. My usual official and unofficial sources at Microsoft just smile or change the subject when the topic of Windows 7 comes up, and outsiders who historically have had advance access to upcoming Windows releases tell me they're similarly frozen out.
If this were like previous Windows development cycles, we would have already been treated to at least one developers' conference, two rounds of dog-and-pony shows for the press and analysts, and a stack of white papers three feet high. Early releases would already be in the hands of outside testers, and a much larger community would be gearing up for official beta releases. This time around, things are different. Sinofsky's goal is obviously to move the dial in the other direction. Talk less, ship more. Underpromise, overdeliver. But has he gone too far?
Maybe. The nature of the Windows ecosystem means that Microsoft can never deliver a Steve Jobs-style surprise, so eventually that information lockdown has to relax. But I think there's something healthy about undoing some of the old assumptions about how Windows should be developed. Here are three of those assumptions I won't miss:
Long beta cycles make better products. Oh really? If you count the infamous "Longhorn reset," Windows Vista had arguably the longest beta cycle in the history of software development, with tens of thousands of outside testers. And look how well that worked out. Getting advance access to new Windows releases might make some outsiders feel like insiders, but it doesn't make for a better product. The overwhelming majority of customers buy a new release of Windows with a new PC, and the quality of their experience is driven by the decisions that the OEM makes. Beta testers can't duplicate that experience.
Customers need lots of advance information to make buying decisions. Which customers are we talking about here? And how much advance information do they need? Corporate customers can start their testing before release (and smart ones do just that), but they invariably need 12 to 18 months of testing with the official release to verify compatibility with in-house applications before they begin actual deployments of a new OS. Meanwhile, consumers had years of information about Longhorn/Vista in advance of its release. Did all that information really help anyone make better buying decisions in early 2007?
Users need time to give feedback about design decisions. Microsoft is getting plenty of feedback about the design decisions it made with Windows Vista. I don't think there's been any shortage of suggestions on what needs to be fixed in Vista, do you? Presumably, that feedback is being incorporated into components and features of Windows 7, including User Account Control, Windows Explorer, the Network and Sharing Center, and Internet Explorer. But there's a cold, hard reality with all those design decisions: You can't please everyone. One of the weaknesses of the Vista beta cycle was that the UI designers kept changing things up until the very last minute. For Windows 7, they need to get the design right (or nearly so) the first time.
Ultimately, what customers want to know now about the next version of Windows is simple. Corporate Windows users want Microsoft to provide a road map they can use to make decisions. Tell us what you plan to concentrate on in this release and how you intend to reduce the pain of deploying and managing Windows systems. Software and hardware developers want a platform that they can count on so they can have solid code ready on the day Windows 7 ships. Consumers want fewer marketing buzzwords and more concrete reasons to believe that the experience of using Windows 7 is going to be dramatically better than what they got with Vista.
More than anything else, we want you to tell us what you're going to do, and then do it.
Go ahead, surprise us.