Ballmer: Testers didn't ring Vista warning bells; Could the same happen with Windows 7?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer this week pointed to Vista as an example that tester feedback may not always be the best measure of the success of a new operating system release. What's that mean for Windows 7?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has done his best over the past year-plus to try to dampen expectations around Windows 7. He's doing it again this week during his pre-launch European tour, telling press, analysts and others there that he doesn't expect Windows 7 to provide a sudden and miraculous boost to the PC market.

But I'm more intrigued by a related comment Ballmer made, as I've thought about this very scenario  myself in recent months. Ballmer pointed to Vista as an example that tester feedback may not always be the best measure of the success of a new operating system release. From an October 7 Bloomberg story:

“'The test feedback (on Windows 7) has been good, but the test feedback on Vista was good,' Ballmer, 53, said in an interview last week. 'I am optimistic, but the proof will be in the pudding.'"

It feels like a long time ago when testers were assessing the many Longhorn/Vista builds that Microsoft issued both before and after the "reset" in 2004. Before the reset, Microsoft officials heard from testers that there were some deep-seated problems with its next planned version of Windows. As a result, the Windows team went back to the drawing board and rejiggered it. Then there were lots more builds. And finally, in the fall of 2006, Microsoft released Vista to manufacturing.

I've been trying to recall if there were any early warning signs about the problems Vista had when it first came out. Were there any major outcries from the hundreds of thousands of public and private testers about Vista/Longhorn being bloated; slow to power on and shut down; and including such an onerous number of security prompts that many users would just shut off UAC?

The Softies, the company's PC partners and software vendors all knew that Vista was such a moving target (both feature-wise and date-wise) that it was dangerous and crazy to count on any particular build being final before Microsoft actually RTM'd it. So there were some signs that apps and drivers would likely lag the product substantially.

But was there any widespread tester pushback advising Microsoft not to release Vista/Longhorn because it was not ready? I remember hearing/reading some testers saying this, but not enough to create high-level, widespread panic. (There was considerable panic after RTM, but not before.)

As a result, I'm left wondering about Vista, as many are/were about the current financial crisis: Why didn't anyone inform us sooner of the impending meltdown? Weren't there warning signs? Where was everybody?

A lot has changed between the time Microsoft developed/tested/released Vista and when it did the same with Windows 7. The organizational structure and development processes of the Windows unit was overhauled. Testers got fewer, but more predictable builds with relatively few changes. PC makers and software vendors were brought into the testing process far earlier.

Ballmer is right: The early tester feedback on 7 has been good. Those who already have Windows 7 installed seem generally happy.

Is Ballmer simply trying to keep company watchers' predictions about Windows 7's success from spinning out of control? Or is there even the most remote chance that Windows 7 might not be as good as the early reviews and feedback have indicated? I'm leaning toward the "Ballmer's just trying to manage expectations" explanation, but I'm curious what you think.

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