In-Depth

Windows 7 Lockdown

Why has Microsoft clammed up about dev projects in the Windows and Windows Live groups, and what does it mean for developers?

When Steven Sinofsky took control of the Windows and Windows Live Engineering Group at Microsoft just after the release to manufacturing milestone of Windows Vista in November 2007, it was hailed as a savvy move. Sinofsky, after all, was the man behind Microsoft Office, a product renowned for timely and on-track releases. If anyone could right the Windows ship after the years-long Vista development cycle, it was Sinofsky.

Now, with Vista more than a year old and work on the next Microsoft client OS -- Windows 7 -- well underway, the developer community is getting its first look at life under the new regime. And some Microsoft watchers are concerned by what they see.

"There's no question that Windows 7 development appears to be modeled on Office development under Sinofsky's leadership, in that Sinofsky appears to hold his cards close to his vest," says Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry. "As a result, all we really know about Windows 7 are rumors and speculation."

It's not clear whether Sinofsky is simply following the more restrictive information-sharing policies mandated by Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, or if he made the decision to run silent on his own. Many people believe that the code of silence about what's coming is designed to promote what's already here: Vista. Either way, the lock-down is creating some developer and IT professional backlash, as well as resentment among some Microsoft employees, who feel the Windows team has gone too far in its attempt to restrict the flow of information.

Michael Cherry, Analyst, Directions on Microsoft "Sometime soon, Microsoft will have to start letting developers and customers know where they're going with Windows 7."
Michael Cherry, Analyst, Directions on Microsoft  

The Sinofsky Factor
The newfound secrecy and tight control of information around Windows and Windows Live hardly comes as a surprise to longtime watchers of Sinofsky, a 19-year Microsoft veteran. As a senior vice president at Redmond, Sinofsky is well known as a leader who runs a tight ship. When he came to Windows from the Office group he brought with him a number of key lieutenants, including Grant George, head of testing and operations, and Julie Larson-Green, VP of program management.

During his tenure on the Office team, Sinofsky earned a reputation for running the trains on time and for delivering fewer, but near-feature-complete betas. Continuity and control seemed to define Sinofsky's run there.

All that made Sinofsky a logical candidate to succeed former Microsoft Co-President Jim Allchin at the helm of Windows OS development. Vista's well-documented troubles included a wholesale "reset" of the Windows client strategy in 2004, which forced Microsoft to publicly announce that Vista would lack some of the functionality that had been promised since 2002. It's a situation that Sinofsky seems determined not to repeat.

"Windows took an approach that treated each release as though everything we thought of needed to get into that one release," Sinofsky explains in an e-mail interview. "Of course, during the course of development you learned new things and so the list of what was in the release continued to increase, along with the ship date. While that is an aggressive development methodology, it doesn't always lead to the most predictable ship date."

Sinofsky also arrived to face an undisciplined Windows Live group, which had confused customers by rushing out new and often-overlapping services with seemingly little forethought and testing. Customers struggled to make sense of offerings bearing names like Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Desktop Mail and Windows Live Hotmail.

Sources at Microsoft say Sinofsky led a huge reorganization of the Windows client team, cutting a number of middle managers. Company insiders say the team has around 5,000 employees, a number Microsoft will neither confirm nor deny.

Sinofsky also halted the rollout of new services from the Windows Live group while the team was reorganized under the concept of a single suite of services delivered via a unified installer. Under Sinofsky, the Windows Live team has added more Windows-like planning mechanisms to its cycle-with pillars, themes and milestone releases now part of the software dev cycle.

Michael Cherry, Analyst, Directions on Microsoft "Saying we want to be transparent overstates what we should or can do practically -- we will share our plans in a thoughtful and constructive manner."
Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky,
from an internal blog post on corporate translucency  

A Double-Edged Sword
But the most visible change Sinofsky has made comes via the new disclosure policy (see "Sinofsky's Translucency Pitch"). Microsoft has decided to tighten control of information coming out of its Windows, Windows Live and Internet Explorer dev teams. It's a policy that Microsoft hopes will set more realistic expectations, but company watchers and developers say the move is already hurting developers.

"With Vista, there were too many grandiose and random promises that only served to raise expectations to an unreachable level," says Directions on Microsoft's Cherry. "But sometime soon, Microsoft will have to start letting developers and customers know where they're going with Windows 7. Will there be another round of application incompatibility issues?"

To date, Microsoft has released internally -- and to a few external partners -- one pre-alpha milestone build of Windows 7. A second milestone build was expected by early May, though no confirmation was available at press time. The company won't comment on what features will be in the new OS or on the ship schedule, other than to estimate its release at some point in 2010. Rumor has it there might be an alpha release of Windows 7 this year at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in late October. But neither Sinofsky nor anyone on the Windows team is talking.

Cherry says Microsoft's radio silence is making matters tough for dev and IT shops, which must weigh whether or not to skip Vista and hold out for Windows 7. He says Microsoft's new stance effectively forces developers "to make the decision with incomplete data."

An IT professional who works for a large Microsoft customer agrees: "They don't want to share dates, because they're tired of missing deadlines and letting people down," says the IT manager, who asked not to be identified. "However, they ask people to set deployment goals, which will of course be impacted by other factors such as internal projects, etc. So while I understand the hesitance to set a schedule for releases, they really should give us some target windows. If they decide they can't do that, then they should have no expectation on deployment on our end, as we would be unable to give them any kind of timeline, either.

"As for features, this is much more critical to share early," he adds, "as many of these are interdependent with other infrastructure changes and can take some time to coordinate and implement in a company."

This complaint is echoed by another developer who works for an organization that's very tight with Microsoft. He also asked not to be named in this article.

"The guidance from Microsoft on Windows 7 under Sinofsky's direction is a dramatic change from previous cycles," he says. "At this point, we've essentially given up on Windows 7 information until the PDC this fall."

While the Windows client team has been unwilling to share any specifics about the Windows 7 dev process, it's clear the company seeks to avoid the dramatic course and schedule changes that plagued Vista.

"What we've done is define a major release in terms of features and investments, with a focus on compatibility -- in all forms: system requirements, APIs, applications, hardware -- and define a schedule that allows us the time to get that work done with the expected level of quality and polish," Sinofsky writes.

Sinofsky's Translucency Pitch

After date and feature information about Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) was leaked last summer, Windows and Windows Live Engineering Group's chief Steven Sinofsky wrote a blog post -- for Microsoft employees only, not the general public -- explaining his philosophy on disclosure. Sinofsky explained why he believed "translucency," instead of "transparency," was the best approach for his team and for customers.

Here are excerpts from that blog post, provided by a source who asked not to be named.

July 9, 2007
Transparency and Disclosure
"[O]ur goal as an organization is to be much more thoughtful and considerate with what we disclose. Premature disclosure might make us feel like we were helping. Heck, it might even make some customers and partners feel good, and some partners might even understand [some] of the challenges we face in managing our projects. But on the whole it did not make Microsoft a good citizen of the ecosystem and it certainly did not make us good enterprise partners. Being thoughtful and considerate means we will be just as open and just as transparent about roadmaps and plans as we ever were (meaning the contents we disclose) but we are going to work to eliminate the premature disclosure that has low reliability and high error rates -- we will have the right materials for enterprise customers, brief industry analysts, and work with partners all with valuable and timely information. Notice that these audiences are our customers and partners and that a non-goal is allowing the news cycle or needs of the press to drive disclosure timing and contents ...

"I know many folks think that this type of corporate 'clamp down' on disclosure is 'old school' and that in the age of corporate transparency we should be open all the time. Corporations are not really transparent. Corporations are translucent. All organizations have things that are visible and things that are not. Saying we want to be transparent overstates what we should or can do practically -- we will share our plans in a thoughtful and constructive manner.

"The upside of being deliberate is that we hope to exceed expectations with what we do. That is not to say that if we are silent people will expect nothing so anything we deliver is great. Rather since we will be talking all along about what we do (in a planned manner) when we show off the software it comes to intrigue and excite people because it does what we said it would, but it does so in an elegant and thoughtful manner, and that it really does what we said it would do, and it does so spectacularly well. We are different than some companies in our industry because our success is dependent and intertwined with that of thousands of other companies. We take that extraordinarily seriously and thus our communication is designed to take that into account by sharing actionable, accurate, truthful, and complete information in a timely manner -- timely means that there is time to act and if acted upon the results are what we collectively hope to achieve."

For the full text of this blog post, see microsoft2.net/?p=13.

-- M.J.F.

Angst and Expectation
Concerns about access to information extend beyond the Windows OS and Windows Live groups. Earlier this year, a number of bloggers criticized Microsoft for failing to share any information about Internet Explorer futures. The concern: Microsoft was making decisions about standards compliance, security and features in IE without input from its supposed partners.

"While additional IE8/Live/Silverlight information is trickling out [from Microsoft] over the last month or two, most of it is very early preview information and not baked enough to firm up our own schedules for product releases beyond internal work," says the software developer with a close Microsoft partner.

Will Microsoft's new disclosure policies create a backlash that could hurt the Microsoft ecosystem more than it helps? The march toward the PDC over the next few months should make that clear.

Windows 7: What We Know

Microsoft may not be talking publicly about Windows 7, but there are certainly enough rumors to go around. The most important piece of insight: It might be time to lower expectations, as Win7 may well end up being a non-disruptive update to the groundwork laid down by Vista. Right now Win7 is planned to arrive in 2010 or even the end of 2009. Here's what we're hearing about the next, great Windows OS:

  • Milestone 1 (M1) was made available to select partners and Milestone 2 may be released by the time this issue went to press. Internally, Microsoft's Developer Division is testing all their builds against Win7.
  • Win7 will likely feature a more modular, Windows Server 2008-like architecture that lets developers customize which components and drivers are actually loaded. However, there are conflicting reports as to whether or not the stripped-down "minimal Windows kernel" (MinWin) will, in fact, replace the existing Windows kernel in Win7.
  • Microsoft is looking for ways to tie next-gen Windows Live services (known as Wave 3, targeted for the end of 2008) tightly with Windows 7, including ways to provide unique Live experiences for Win7 users.
  • M1 testers report a new version of Windows Media Center and support for multiple graphics cards.
  • No word on Vista castoffs: Will Windows Future Storage or the Next Generation Secure Computing Base appear?
For more information, read these Foley blog postings: http://tinyurl.com/4nk4gd, http://tinyurl.com/2vfhht.

-- Kathleen Richards/M.J.F.
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