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.
And at that time, 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. Although Microsoft couldn't get through 2006 without being forced to delay Vista once again, by the start of 2007--after five years in development and endless feedback from thousands of testers--the majority of Allchin's gripes had finally been addressed.
The result: Vista is ready for the masses and set to 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.
A case in point: Vista's networking feature--one of Allchin's 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 an 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.
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."
As Microsoft tried to get all of the pieces to work together, however, 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.'"
For Allchin, it's the attention to the little things that makes Vista stand out from past Windows releases. Allchin and the Windows design team 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 said 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 said, his frustration clearly getting the better of him. Moments later, though, he was 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 gushed. "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.
As Jim Allchin sits at a PC testing the new Internet Explorer, he is pleased with a new security feature that helps keep users from going to malicious sites. But the name, "Phishing Filter," just doesn't work for him.
"What's a phishing filter?" Allchin says during several days of testing at a usability lab at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus last February. "It's so geeky."
After a bit more critiquing of the term, Allchin moves on to the next item on a list of things he's examining in the new browser. But an hour later, he is again fishing for a better name.
"The Phishing Filter, it's very strange," he says. "I don't like the whole idea here...of romancing this term. Do we really need to create yet another vernacular for humans to deal with?"
But open up Internet Explorer 7 today, and sure enough, there's the Phishing Filter.
"That's one that didn't get changed," Allchin reflects in a recent follow-up interview. That's not to say he has grown to like the name. "I think that we could have used a much simpler term that more regular people would understand instead of 'phishing.' And then 'filter' just makes it that much worse."
There was plenty of discussion about what the name of the new security feature would be, Allchin says. "But the team really felt like we would get ridiculed for trying to come up with a new term, because the industry had already decided that (phishing) was the term. My view is I'd rather think about regular users than what the industry thinks."
Handing out the Vista 'goods'
A collection of Vista DVDs, from Longhorn to the present.
January 29, 2007
Behind the scenes for Vista
Photos from Redmond, where Microsoft is working hard to get the Windows update out of the door. November 8, 2006
Vista gets the shutter bug
The photo-importing wizard in Windows Vista has raised concerns. October 24, 2006
Security tweaks in Vista
Release Candidate 2 version lets people turn off feature. October 13, 2006
Power plans in Vista
Managing the drain on your laptop battery.June 2, 2006
Vista's got game
Taking advantage of 3D graphics and other features.March 21, 2006
Editors: Mike Ricciuti, Leslie Katz
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Kristina Wood
25 commentsJoin the conversation! Add your comment