Bill Gates' biggest Microsoft product regret: WinFS

Bill Gates' biggest Microsoft product regret: WinFS

Summary: In his first AMA on Reddit, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates calls WinFS the Microsoft product he most wished had made it to market.


Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is doing his first-ever Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit on February 11.


Gates started posting answers to questions promptly at 10:45 a.m. PT/1:45 p.m. ET, as planned. From the introduction, it seemed clear Gates intended to focus the AMA on his job heading the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. ("Many of you know me from my Microsoft days. The company remains very important to me and I’m still chairman. But today my full time work is with the foundation.")

But one of the first questions Gates answered was about Microsoft. Here's the exchange:

Q: What one Microsoft program or product that was never fully developed or released do you wish had made it to market?

Gates: We had a rich database as the client/cloud store that was part of a Windows release that was before its time. This is an idea that will remerge since your cloud store will be rich with schema rather than just a bunch of files and the client will be a partial replica of it with rich schema understanding.

For those who may not know, Gates was referencing WinFS, or Windows Future Storage. The idea behind WinFS was to integrate some relational database technologies with the Windows File System. In its early (codename "Cairo") days, WinFS was key to Microsoft's plans to create a true, object-oriented file store.

At one point, Microsoft was touting WinFS as one of the key components Windows Vista/Longhorn. Then the Longhorn reset happened and Microsoft ended up rolling out bits of WinFS as components of SQL Server and other database-focused deliverables.

In a crazy coincidence, a Microsoft veteran who once worked in the SQL Server organization posted his thoughts today about WinFS. His MSDN blog post focuses more on how to tell whether a project is doomed than on WinFS. But the author, Brian Welcker -- who is currently Group Program Manager for Microsoft Dynamics -- called WinFS a prime example of the kinds of projects that "may be headed towards certain doom."

From Welcker's post:

"Early in my career at Microsoft, I was part of one of the biggest development disasters at Microsoft (no, not Windows Vista), called WinFS. WinFS was an attempt to bring the benefits of schema and relational databases to the Windows file system. I never worked directly on WinFS but since I was part of the SQL Server organization during that time (I worked in Reporting Services), I got to see it from birth to death. I won't go over all of the specifics here but if you want some of the gory details, the Wikipedia article has a pretty good overview of the technology specifics. The WinFS effort was started around 1999 as the successor to the planned storage layer of Cairo and died in 2006 after consuming many thousands of hours of efforts from really smart engineers."

Welcker noted that no two members of the WinFS team seemed to be able to answer the question "What is it?" in a succinct, cohesive way. He noted:

"Some people would say that it (WinFS) was the database embedded in the operating system. Others would say that it was XML in the database. Other answers included a SQL-based file system, an object/relational mapping layer, rich storage for Office apps, a file system metadata indexer, .NET in the database, etc. It's not that these weren't useful technologies (many of them shipped outside the WinFS project), it's that there wasn't a singular vision driving the project to completion. Because no one could identify the essence of the project, it made it really hard to make any decisions about what should or shouldn't be included."

Gates isn't just geeking out on Reddit. When asked what's the cheapest thing that gives him the most pleasure since he's become wealthy, Gates answered: "Kids. Cheap cheeseburgers. Open Course Ware courses..."

Update: This was a good one, too:

Q: What do people give you for your birthday, given that you can buy anything you want?

Gates: Free software. Just kidding. Books actually.

Gates also answered a question about the next big thing during his Reddit session. He's still bullish on robots and speech, as he has been for years.

Q: What emerging technology today do you think will cause another big stir for the average consumer in the same way that the home computer did years ago?

Gates: Robots, pervasive screens, speech interaction will all change the way we look at "computers". Once seeing, hearing, and reading (including handwriting) work very well you will interact in new ways..


Topics: Data Management, Microsoft


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Credit the Redditors

    At least give credit to the Redditors that asked the question. Maybe you should give them Reddit Gold for providing you with a story. It's all about Karma.
  • Credit the Redditors

    At least give credit to the Redditors that asked the question. Maybe you should give them Reddit Gold for providing you with a story. It's all about Karma.
  • Good writeup, that of Welcker

    One very good example, why "leaders" should not be allowed to push "wonderful technology" without justification.
  • Bill Gates made a funny comment.

    Bill Gates seems to have a good sense of humor. Someone commented on his "kids" being cheap when talking about "whats the cheapest thing that gives you pleasure".

    They said "where are you getting these cheap kids"
    and Mr. Bill Gates answered. "The Stork". :)
    • The reply to that was even funnier

      The stork market?
  • Gates A Visionary?

    I've always found it very interesting how people seem to cast Bill Gates as this big visionary. In reality, Microsoft has never been very innovative from a product or technology perspective. They came out with DOS which was originally developed by someone else and was less of an O/S than what Apple had at the time. They came out with Windows which was stolen from Apple who stole it from Xerox. They missed the internet entirely and had to use their brute force in the mkt to gain footing with Explorer. With Office, they basically copied what others did. With SQL, they copied code from Sybase and functionality from Oracle. More recently, they completely missed the significance of cloud computing and are now trying to get in the game. And, oh, let's not forget that they missed mobility completely while Apple and Google were basically creating the industry. Gates and MSFT visionary?...not for a second.
    • Yes a visionary.

      It is not so much what he came up with, but the fact that HE pushed it when everyone else said it would fail. I listened for years about how WordPerfect, a DOS based word processor would never be replaced. I watched IBM tell Bill what he should do for an operating system. And I watched Apple's dismal offering (how can you even mention them?) Bill did not listen, he did his own thing and he was right. That is the vision.

      They didn't copy code from Sybase, they bought/licensed it. You are just showing your ignorance/Apple fanboy orientation. They did miss the internet thing though, I'll agree. It was at about the time they bailed Apple out of bankruptcy wasn't it? Apple also missed it.

      What is sad is the exact same vision applies to Robotics today. Again, Bill is right, and no one is listening. Microsoft just shut down their Robotics effort after the few visionaries left, disgusted with how Balmer treated it. Bill knows it; bean counters have no vision. Robotics will suffer because he off doing other things. Maybe Google can fill in, but certainly not Microsoft, the vision is long gone there.
      Mike Partain
      • Mike Partain .....WordPerfect,wasn't replaced it was SQUASHED

        by a ruthless Microsoft......end of story
        Over and Out
        • and?

          As was Novell. And Netscape. Could have been Apple. Can't say I blame them.
          Mike Partain
          • Twas Novell

            It was Novel that ruined Word Perfect. Word Perfect was the best of the Word Processors. Old Word Perfect 5.1 still has better editing features than even the latest Word.

            When Novel bought Word Perfect, the first thing they did was to eliminate the service department. Word Perfect had the best telephone service department in the software world. Whatever your problem, they would find and fix it, then send you an update disk for the cost of the media.

            With that axed to pay for the purchase, the downhill slide started. It was a taste of things to come. The first Windows Version was badly done. Then Novel sold Word Perfect to Corel. Corel made few changes to the code base, but, over time the product ran better in Windows. Still, the damage was done. Microsoft's products were not as good, but they cost less.

            BTW, Novel once owned Unix also. They botched that one too.
          • Until you ask an actual CNE from that era..

            Like me. I was there. I held both a CNE and CNA to 'back' Novell in both cases, and they weren't as 'helpful' as any one of you romanticize about. Unless you've even heard about IPX/SPX, there's no need to continue reading. Novell bucked TCP/IP harder than even MSFT, for a long time. Don't pretend. It happened. So many offerings meant so many different opinions for those 'tender' years following. Some said Concurrent DOS, some said Windows, and some said Novell Netware. I WAS a Netware guy, loved it... but, Microsoft did something different. They embraced the home user "multimedia experience" over many other things (including the internet, for a time). But, despite the press releases of how IE was late to the game, Microsoft embraced the closer to home experiences of CD ROM, multimedia sound cards, Media Player, and things that laid groundwork to the future, and did not burn bridges in the wake.
          • Yah, so...

            Let's talk about Word "Perfect"... and how it was perfectly UNABLE to print. Or, Lotus 123 that was single user ONLY well past the invention of multiuser/multitasking. Hell, AmiPro, what I imagined as a small startup, simply kicked most of those to the curb, despite the user base numbers. What was Novell's answer? Point to point Netware. Or, as I refer to it.. Novell Bandaid. Now, OS/2, that had some good ideas... the least of which was it's inability to distinguish a software interrupt from a hardware interrupt. It simply relied on ONLY H/W interrupts as a future.. no IRQ sharing. (actually, I liked the idea for a long time, being a h/w person). What really cracks me up at this point, is for some Apple fan to interject how Apple had this all figured out by this time. BS.. they were still dealing with the Franklin ACE copies, or having 8 CMOS chips for BIOS to even think about the future, at this point.
          • Then, at long last..

            came Windows 386, and Windows for WorkGroups closely in tow. THAT was the moment the internet met the OS, and the OS was multi-tasking, multi-user, LAN based for great resource (printer) sharing, and internet aware. Even Steve Jobs raised an eye-lid and realized the potential future at this point. The only thing left to overcome was RAM limitations, maybe/maybe not LIMS expanded/extended memory, maybe one company would buy or license QuarterDeck MEMS, or even PC-Tools for mem management, or HD defragmentation. LOL, this was at a time that even Spin-Rite allowed us the abilitity to set interleave values for the hard disk, to optimize HD access.
          • Wordstar was much better than Word Perfect

            Wordstar was much better than Word Perfect. It was killed by IBM who bought cheep non standard keyboards for their first PC. The handy key combinations used in WS editing were not so handy after the keys were moved around. I always hated WP and stayed with CBM for my word processing long after I moved to DOS for other computing. MS Word was a God-send.
          • Wordstar - an excellent Word Processor

            I used Wordstar for years for editing source code. It was very easy to use with very logical easy-to-remember key combinations for doing everything it was possible to do in those days. It even had the option of a permanent on-screen Help panel which was context sensitive and defaulted to "On"! Moreover it was compact and ran comfortably on a 5.25 inch twin floppy disc system (hard drives were horrendously expensive).
            I remember encountering Word Perfect for DOS and I found it very user-hostile with Help not on F1, and there wasn't a "New Document" command! You had to clear all text in the current document, then exit the document, say "No" to "do you want to save changes?" and you had a "new" document. By the time Word Perfect for Windows was introduced, MS Word was already established as The Windows Standard. Word Perfect for Windows did have several advantages over Word but, like Betamax/VHS, it was the first major Windows word processor to hit the market, like the first mass-market video recording format, that won the day, not technical excellence or superiority.
        • You are sitting at the 'big boy' table here

          quit your wining. Business is a tough game, and people play to win.

          end of story.
        • Word Perfect Committed Suicide

          Word Perfect WAS squashed... under the weight of it's own indulgent bloat. What was once a streamlined, efficient word processor became a cumbersome, slow, tragic parody of itself as it added "feature" after "feature" that no one wanted or needed. It was a shame too, because in its heyday, it was a great program.
          • MS-DOS word processors

            Any non-GUI based word processor was crap. I lived through Word Perfect and Wordstar 3.3 and setting codes for attributes and the like was horrible. You had to wait until it was printed to see what you did. Nasty era in tech. I haven't needed a better word processor either since Word 5.1a for the Mac. And now the Office Suite from MS has many alternatives as Microsoft loses it's grasp on much of the world. And yeah Bill Gates was NEVER a visionary. Not any more than most here. We all well imagined most of the things he talks about. Bill has precious little special insight and like others noted missed most of the major trends spending too much time in his money vault.
        • Didn't WP crushed WordStar

          Ram U
          • No.

            WordStar was a fairly good Word Processor. But, it was concentrated primarily in the CP/M market. They were also trying to break out big in the minicomputer market. The problem with WordStar was that the markets they concentrated on went away. Where are CP/M and VAX today?

            WordStar later licensed the basic code out, and it was offered on DOS based computers (during the windows 95-98 eras) but, by that time, there was very little chance for a competitor to fit in.

            having used both, I would say that Word Perfect was better than WordStar. formatting in WordStar could be hard. Even Word was better.

            Of course, now everything is going to CSS like systems, and so formatting is getting easier. The latest Word Processor I am using is actually an HTML layout engine. It works fine as a Word Processor, though. (Sigil, if you are interested. It does have some flaws. everything is HTML or CSS, no word count, hard to make page breaks, headers, footers, etc., but, I no longer need those.)

            I have yet to have the typical Word experience of a lone paragraph or two that suddenly jump to a different layout, and just won't change back. I used to fix those problems with Word Perfect.

            The cause of that problem is in the way that Word handles nested paragraph style declarations. Word doesn't have a way to really show you the style definitions, Word Perfect does. WordStar had the same problems with styles that Word does now.