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Hasta La Vista

When Microsoft announced on March 23 that it would delay the release of the consumer version of Windows Vista into the first quarter of 2007, it set off a firestorm of industry speculation.

And no wonder. In a season crowded with major product releases (starting with SQL Server last year and stretching to new versions of Exchange Server and Office in 2007) none is more important to Microsoft than Vista. Pushing Vista beyond the lucrative holiday season will sting Microsoft and PC OEMs alike.

"This one is particularly painful," says industry analyst Rob Enderle. "It comes late in the cycle. It happens in the fourth quarter. And it hits in the consumer market particularly hard."

Michael Cherry, lead analyst for Windows and Mobile at Directions on Microsoft, believes an overreaching design team is behind the problem. He complains that the feature-complete beta he's been working with has show-stopping issues with mainline applications like Microsoft Visual Studio and Office 2003.

"Sometimes I joke that they never met a feature they didn't like," says Cherry. "I'm not convinced by any stretch of the imagination that this is the last slip Vista is going to take."

Still, with bloggers passing rumors that up to 60 percent of the Vista code needs to be rewritten ("That is absolutely false," responds Microsoft Windows Product Manager Michael Burk), could it be folks are overreacting? Peter O'Kelly, research director for the Burton Group, a research and advisory services firm, argues just that point.

"Is it indicative that Microsoft has lost its game and can no longer develop complex software? No," he says.

Finding a Vista Fix
Depending on whom you ask, Vista development is either profoundly broken or simply moving along at an imperfect pace. Yet the question remains: How can Microsoft avoid such issues in the future?

Perhaps the simplest fix would be better managing expectations. Enderle points to Apple's cryptic approach as a model. "They only start setting expectations when they are sure the product is done," he says.

But Burk calls that tack unrealistic, given how many businesses rely on detailed information from Microsoft to make their own plans. "I think that we need to be as transparent as possible," he responds.

Cherry, who used to work in the Windows development team, says the real problems are internal. "I just think they are not disciplining themselves. They have to ruthlessly manage features," he says. "Don't take on so many dependencies. Don't try to change so many things at once. Don't try to put in new plumbing like all the frameworks… and make major changes to security in the same release."

Prior to the latest delay, Microsoft had pulled several features from the initial Vista release, including the anticipated WinFS file system, the Microsoft Shell (MSH) command line interface, and most recently support for the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) to replace the PC BIOS. Work on Vista's User Account Control -- a key security feature -- was rumored to be a sticking point, though Cherry says it would be just one factor in a "more systemic" problem.

Steven Sinofsky
Industry watchers have praised the appointment of Sinofsky, who brings an impressive on-time record to the Windows Group.

To help get development back on track, Microsoft brought over Steven Sinofsky from the Office Group to serve as senior vice president for the Windows and Windows Live engineering group. He arrives as part of a "broad restructuring" that Microsoft announced in March.

"Here's somebody who has established a really great track record on the Office side for having a great process, predictable schedules, very well received releases of the product, and no catastrophic security things [appearing] on page one of USA Today on a regular basis," says O'Kelly. "They are promoting from within. They need to have their most seasoned and successful managers working on their most important products, and that is what they are doing."

Beyond "stirring the folks around," Enderle believes Microsoft must contend with a challenge that affects many large companies -- isolated executive management.

"People learn that executives over time like to hear good news, so they don't tell them the bad news," he explains. "As a result, executives start to get manipulated into a sequence of bad decisions or non-decisions that otherwise would have been made to correct the problems."

The solution, according to Enderle: A deep corporate cleaning that would address every aspect of the company. But Burk doesn't see any such makeover in the wings. For the Vista programming group, it is business as usual. "I don't anticipate any dramatic changes in the development process or how we deliver daily builds," he says.

Burk's assertion aside, could Vista be delayed yet again? Both Enderle and Cherry think it's a real possibility. Current Windows head Jim Allchin won't hang up the cleats until after Vista ships, but the early arrival of Sinofsky means the new team exec may have a big say in Vista's final schedule.

"His directive historically has been, if you are going to delay the product, delay it a lot. And then make sure you hit that date," says Enderle, who notes that, "the restatement of the date was done without [Sinofsky]."

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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