Barney's Rubble

Blind (Ship) Dates

With ship dates becoming more important than ever thanks to Software Assurance, Doug urges Microsoft (once again) to rethink how it annouces future launches.

Microsoft's chances of hitting ship dates these days are about as good as me smacking a Roger Clemens fastball—slim. We tackled this topic rather scientifically in Redmond Editor Paul Desmond's terrific story "Microsoft Math." Our goal was to define exactly how late products have been in the past so you can predict how late they may be in the future.

This isn't a useless exercise. IT has to plan for new software. It involves budgeting, spec'ing out new hardware, training, licensing and more.

Many a time IT buys new PCs or servers to support a new OS or app, and finds the gear obsolete by the time the software finally shows up. Pre-announcing can also freeze the market, and keep customers from buying alternatives while they wait for the proper Redmond tool.

As a reporter years ago I loved late software—my stories about Windows, Exchange and Lotus 1-2-3 always made it to the front page.

But IT wasn't so happy.

More than a decade ago, I sat down with Bill Gates at Comdex to talk about ship dates. At the time all the key Microsoft products had come out late. I explained that the customers I talked to needed accurate dates for planning.

I then suggested that Microsoft come up with another way of expressing ship dates. There could be a date for the goal, and then a range of time afterwards where the software might actually ship. For instance, "We hope to ship Exchange whatever in the fall of 1994, but realistically it could ship in the summer of 1995."

Bill couldn't believe his ears, and attacked my well thought-out, perfectly reasonable idea. In his mind, IT pros understood that software was often late, and that the ship date was not the actual delivery date. "Who is the guy who thinks the ship date is the date? Is this someone new to software? I want to meet the guy who thinks the ship date is the date!" Gates said.

I remember a bit of a firestorm after the interview ran in InfoWorld, as customers complained to Microsoft about a cavalier attitude toward ship dates.

Today, accurate forecasting is more important than ever. Microsoft sales reps and partners are asking IT to buy into Software Assurance, where you pay for the right to upgrade products, with no guarantee the product will even arrive.

Microsoft is not the only culprit, and certainly not all of its products are late (I think the Xbox DVD add-on was on time).

But it's high time that Redmond and others think about a new way of predicting dates, and offer a range of delivery possibilities instead of a specific date that keeps changing.

And when customers pay for an upgrade under SA, they should get it, even if the product ships after SA coverage expires.

But just like a decade ago, this call is really more Bill's than mine.

What do you think of late products and lousy predictions? E-mail me at dbarney@redmondmag.com.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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