Windows chief bows out

As Vista hits store shelves after a long five years, Microsoft veteran Jim Allchin heads for retirement.

By Ina Fried
Staff Writer, CNET

REDMOND, Wash.--Sitting behind a one-way mirror, a white-haired man struggles to access a shared music library within Windows Vista.

"I'm lost," he says. "I'm in trouble here."

On the other side of the glass, several Microsoft executives try to talk him through the experience. Thousands of people have gone through similar tests inside Microsoft's usability lab. But on this day, February 1, 2006, the person inside Building 28 isn't just some random beta tester. It's Windows boss Jim Allchin.

Allchin gallery

And Allchin had plenty to grouse about. Windows Vista had been in testing for many months. The company had already drastically reshaped the operating system to try to get Vista onto store shelves by the holidays, but by Microsoft's own account there were still lots of bugs.

While the latest versions of Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer that Allchin put through their paces had improved since his last trip to the labs, other parts of Vista were still driving him crazy.

Fast-forward nearly 12 months. The company was forced to delay Vista again, but the majority of Allchin's gripes have been finally addressed.

After five years in development and endless feedback from Allchin and thousands of other testers, Vista is ready for the masses. It will hit store shelves on Tuesday. One day later, Allchin, as promised, will retire after 16 years with the software maker.

It's not yet clear how Allchin's latest product will affect his legacy. While early reviews of the operating system have been lukewarm, Allchin said he is confident that time will show Vista to be a significant improvement over previous versions of Windows.

For instance, he points to Vista's networking feature--one of his biggest gripes a year ago. Now, when users connect to a new network, they are asked if it is a home, work or public network, with the operating system automatically setting firewall and other settings based on that decision. That's a far cry from early testing.

"If you back up 18 months ago or whatever, the networking was so complicated to figure it out," Allchin said in a follow-up interview last week. "I actually think at that time it was probably worse than XP, and now we're dramatically better."

Security. Searching. Photos. Music. They're all much improved, Allchin says.

Remember Longhorn?

But outsiders often point to what might have been, recalling the company's original vision, shown by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates at a developer conference in October 2003. Microsoft wowed developers with a bold new Windows, code-named Longhorn, built around a new file system and deep changes to the way Windows works under the hood. At the end of the conference, the company provided developers with an early test version of the software, packaged in a sleek black package labeled simply "The Goods."

But as Microsoft started trying to get all of the pieces to work together, it found it wasn't going to be able to deliver those goods in any reasonable time frame. It began working on a plan B, with fewer changes deep within Windows and more modest improvements in desktop searching.

In August 2004, Microsoft confirmed it was revamping its plans, pulling out the file system and making other changes as part of an effort to get the operating system ready in time for the holiday 2006 shopping season.

Despite the changes, Allchin said he has no doubt Vista will be "a blockbuster," but said "it will probably be years before it is fully appreciated."

That's nothing new from his perspective. "When we did Windows XP, everybody said, 'Oh, ho hum,' and now everyone is saying, 'It's so good, I don't see how Windows Vista is going to blah, blah blah.'"

It's the attention to the little things that Allchin says makes Vista stand out from past Windows releases. Allchin and the Windows design team have put a huge amount of energy into getting little details right in Vista--from the little swishes that appear as a window is opened, to a new array of system sounds, to the fact that a folder now displays a visual representation of its contents.

"It's the only way to be," Allchin says of his focus on details. "It's nice to be able to paint broad strokes and the like, but it's the attention to details--that's what the customers are actually going to experience."

The top developers working on Vista had to sign a pledge that whatever feature they were working on will not "look like ass."

That wasn't Allchin's idea, but he said he agrees with the concept, if not the pledge's exact wording. Not that Allchin has been shy with his feedback.

During that day in the usability lab a year ago, one of many such days he spent there, he grew frustrated over many details of how the music jukebox worked, such as a dialogue box that just won't go away.

"That's the way we design our system to be--hard to use," Allchin says, his frustration clearly getting the better of him. Moments later, though, he is effusive in his praise for another feature that automatically imports all of a user's music. "I love that. I love that. I love that," he gushes. "It's so much better. Hit one button, and everything is set for you."

The media player is of particular importance to Allchin, both because he is a music aficionado and because the software faces intense competition from Apple's iTunes.

During testing, he and Windows executive Dave Fester bemoaned how Vista handled music-related tasks. Not surprisingly, the competitive target was Apple.

"What is this?" Fester asked. "I am so confused as to what we are doing here. We just look so disconnected. We look so disconnected compared to the Mac."

Allchin responded, "I agree. I can't argue. I agree."

His critiques that day echoed the blunt, urgent e-mails Allchin sent in 2003 and 2004 while Microsoft was readying Vista. In one missive to Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer, Allchin noted that he would buy a Mac if he didn't work for Microsoft, saying that Microsoft had lost its way.

"I think our teams lost sight of what resilience means, what full scenarios mean, what security means, what performance means...I see lots of random features and some great vision, but that doesn't translate into great products," Allchin wrote.

Allchin concedes now that he wasn't always pleased with either the media player or the way it connected to devices, but said he is happy with where things are now, both with the music jukebox and with Vista as a whole.

"Everybody should know by now, from everything I've written or said, I am a harsh realist. I am harsh," he said. "I have to say that I'm also patient, and this product is going to do just fine."

That's not to say Allchin is ever satisfied.

"He asks tough questions and he has high standards," said Mike Sievert, the corporate vice president in charge of marketing Windows. Sievert said he gets, on average, four e-mails a week from Allchin containing suggestions of things that need to be better.

"He's very interested in how we're doing in managing the reputation of Windows," Sievert said. Not content to let others handle all the Vista marketing, Allchin has taken to blogging on an official company blog about the many virtues of Vista. This week, he added a post on just how much of the 2003 vision actually did make it into Vista.

On the development side, Allchin was even more enmeshed. In the final days before Microsoft declared Vista done, Allchin and his technical assistant spent long hours testing arcane scenarios to try to spot bugs that either the development teams or the servers running automated tests might have missed.

As part of those tests, "I'm doing video calls with my mom in Boston," Allchin said during those last harried days in November. "I'm doing remote assistance to jump into a machine, and then I 'remote desktop' from that machine to another machine."

Allchin was also pushing for changes up to the very last minute, arguing that if there were bugs to be fixed, they should be.

"(If) there's a fix, I want to put it in," Allchin maintained. "It should be clear that date means not much to me, that quality is much more important."

Quitting time

But after months of sleepless nights, Allchin is ready for a break. He has been vague about future plans, saying he might do some contract work for Microsoft, but that's still up in the air. What is clear is that the Allchin era at Microsoft is over.

Allchin is skipping the big gala launch of Vista in New York, opting to preside over an internal company event in Redmond on Tuesday. A day later he will finish up at Microsoft and the next day he's headed on vacation. "February 1, I'm going to go where it's warm, on a boat."

Vista may be Allchin's final legacy, but he will also be remembered for other key initiatives: helping move Microsoft from a desktop software company to a formidable player in the server space and passionate advocacy for client software even in an age of networked computers.

"He's Mr. Distributed Computing," said Tod Nielsen, who worked with Allchin for years at Microsoft and is now CEO of software maker Borland. "He fundamentally has a belief that's the best way computing should be done."

Allchin will also be remembered for his role in the landmark Microsoft antitrust trial, where he was grilled about a Microsoft video that appeared to have been doctored, using different PCs in different parts of the video.

"He got caught up in that sideshow with the video stuff," said Nielsen. "It was really unfortunate. Jim had nothing to do with it. His role was (saying), 'I want a video set up to show X, and that was it.'"

Inside Microsoft, a new guard is taking over Windows management. The overall unit is now headed by former sales chief Kevin Johnson, while development is being led by Steven Sinofsky, who came over last year from the Office business, where he built a reputation for shipping products consistently and on time.

Ballmer has made it clear he doesn't want Microsoft to ever go five years between Windows releases again. But in its quest for speed, Microsoft has to make sure not to forget those all important details, especially now that its toughest critic won't be there.

Sievert, the Windows marketing executive, said Sinofsky has a big legacy to uphold. "In many respects, it will be Steven's job (to make sure) that focus on experiences, security and quality gets carried on."