The expected announcement on November 8 of the release to manufacturing (RTM) of Windows Vista is a milestone on many fronts. For one, it’s the end of the Jim Allchin era (and the start of the Steven Sinofsky one), in terms of Windows leadership at Microsoft.
On October 18, I had a chance to chat at length with Allchin, Microsoft’s co-president of platforms and services, on everything from the final throes of Vista’s development and testing process, to how he’d like to be remembered when he leaves Microsoft after 16 years in January 2007.
Q: Now that we’re in the last few days of the Vista development process, what has it been like around here right now? Are people like sleeping under their desks? Have they working 24X7, through the weekends to get this thing done?
Allchin: It's very unique from past releases, very unique because there's a change that's sweeping through in terms of new players that are going to be here, new organizations, and that is a backdrop that wasn't here before, and changes in a fairly consequential way perhaps the way people see and feel things.
In general, people are just cranking, but on the other hand being very careful, because they're so afraid of regression. They're just being very careful. But there are two ship- room meetings a day, and people here are on Saturday at the ship room to decide what's taken, what's not taken. It's not the 24-hour-a day thing. It's really not.
We're at the point (in mid-October) where for the things that are critical, we're all over them, you know, massive. The test teams are under great stress right now, because we entered escrow and they're just driving as hard as they can. So there's a high tension here, a lot of high tension, and we're just day by day.
Q: So your last day is still happening at the end of January?
Allchin: Yeah, end of January.
Q: So you're going to stick around through all this, until the retail launch?
Allchin: Well, it turns out that was always the plan, independent of anything else. End of January is when I'm going to stop. It was definitely not planned, definitely not planned.
Q: What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment at Microsoft?
Allchin: People don’t remember that we were no place in the server world in the early 1990s. Today, people see us as a significant player in the enterprise, and to think back at that period, we were the complete laughing stock. This was the DOS company.
The number of times that I flew to New York, and we'd go and meet with somebody on Wall Street, and one of the financial groups, and just be laughed at, you know, "Servers? Microsoft? No, no, no." These were either Novell shops or they were heavy UNIX shops, and Banyan had penetrated some, but even there Banyan was being niched out and just killed by Novell as well. Novell was the dominant player.
I don't think people really can remember. And so it’s an interesting thing now as we're finishing up Windows Vista, people have, from my perspective, very unique memories of the way it was before.
(They say things like) "Everything was perfect before. There were no problems. All the betas were great. They had such high quality. We could run them, this and that, and all the features were there, and it was just such a panacea world."
Well, I was there, you know? It wasn't like that. We have some of the data to show it wasn't like that. But it's been so long since we've come out with a huge release, people say, oh, well, you know, it was so much better before.
Q: Once you leave Microsoft, what do you most want to be remembered for?
Allchin: Well, I would hope that I was certainly part of the team that tried to really bring quality and high-end systems to Microsoft. I do feel significantly responsible for getting us into the services.
But in terms of being remembered, that's not the thing that I hope I'm remembered for. I think I've been a quality proponent and driving to improve the experience for customers all along. As I look (back) today, still with all the issues that I personally see, I think it's pretty impressive.
I mean, I don't know of a system that is used on so many different pieces of hardware, such a large ecosystem in terms of hardware, such a huge ecosystem in terms of software, used from kiosks in rural places in emerging markets to the largest servers, to laptops, I don't know of a system that does that. And given all those permutations, I think the quality is pretty darn good.
Q: Many Microsoft watchers see you as the guy who championed the integration of Internet Explorer into the operating system. Do you still think that just was a good idea, and would you do the same thing now if it were today that you were making that decision?
Allchin: I do believe in integration. I believe that's the best thing for customers, and I think it's proven in most of the devices that you use today. Cars are a lot more complicated today, but they're a lot more integrated, and yet they're simpler to use.
I believe it brings down cost. I believe it makes it simpler because the different components work better together. I believe that it was preordained that browsing was a part of the operating system, no different than I saw networking.
I can also say that I saw that from a technology side and a business side. Technology, there were so many parts that were common: You're browsing a file share versus browsing the Internet. Well, let's see, you're still using TCP to go over here; why should you have a different protocol to go here versus there? Let's go up to the next level. You still have to show things in the UI; why couldn't you use HTML and why SOAP? I saw a lot of parallels there, so technically I believed it.
And then business-wise I also believed it because I couldn't see how there was any business by having a standalone browser business, if you will. I didn't see that it was a long term winning strategy to have that separate. I mean, how do you make money that way?
And, of course, this has been written about in many books and people have in some cases portrayed it accurately, but in most cases portrayed it inaccurately from my view. This was about the business case.
Do you want to go create a browser business that was totally separate -- or let's take the next thing -- speech. Let's go take speech and make it totally separate. Or let's take security, let's make security totally separate. I can take any number of things and say, okay, asymptotically if you look out in the future, how can we make it simpler for customers? Do you want two separate concepts for those things? No, I don't think so.
Q:. If you were going to stay at Microsoft, what would be the next big thing you would want to work on? If you could do anything, would you just stay the course and keep doing more releases of Windows, or would you like want to start something brand new and something different?
Allchin: There are many things that fascinate me. I can get interested in a lot of things.
I think we're only partially through the security and the app compatibility knothole, and I see them as somewhat related, not fully but somewhat related in terms of app isolation and then isolation of dirty data entering a machine. And I think there's been some great work by some of the teams and incubations here that I would like to see to go to fruition. And I think that that, when I think about impact for society, if we could say to an enterprise customer, don't worry about the apps, we know they're going to run, that would be a huge step.
In terms of future stuff, there are so many things that interest me. We’ve come a long ways in speech understanding, but that's an area that we will continue to make progress there.
Q: What are you going to do next?
Allchin: I don't know. I really don't know.
Q: Do you want to take time off?
Allchin: I need time off.
Q: Some folks are saying you might join Ignition Partners with some of your old cohorts, like Brad Silverberg and Rich Tong…
Allchin: (That’s) just not for me. I love those guys but it's not for me. And I'll just spend some time and think. I'm just working my tail off right now, so it's very hard to let myself -- I mean, my wife is saying I'm going to have a problem because I'm not letting myself, because I'm really not, and I'm not making it up, I don't know what I'm going to do, but I will figure it out.
Q: I’m sure you will. Best of luck in whatever you do next.