March 23, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Clouds over Redmond

The latest delay for Windows Vista highlights a mounting challenge for Microsoft--finding a way to update its most important product on any kind of reasonable schedule.

With all the setbacks, it will be more than five years between Windows XP and Windows Vista. And for even that delivery schedule, Microsoft had to scale back many of the major advances that were planned for the new operating system.

Although Windows has largely maintained its dominant share of the operating system market, the software maker's inability to regularly update the product poses a growing risk to its cash cow.

"Microsoft is going to be feeling more pressure, especially as applications get to be more OS-agnostic," or not tied to a particular operating system, Gartner analyst Michael Silver said.

Microsoft has long spoken out about its need to be constantly innovating, with executives pointing to the fate that bedeviled IBM in the 1970s and 1980s, when it became seen as a lumbering giant in a field of nimbler and more agile competitors.

"I've been around IBM, and I saw how IBM overdid it," Steve Ballmer said in a 2003 interview with The Seattle Times. In that interview, the Microsoft CEO described the opportunities that IBM's slowed pace created for Microsoft when the PC came around, and talked about Microsoft's need to avoid that fate. "Maybe we will, maybe we won't--but we have strategy control, we have technology control, we've got financial control," he said.

Of course, recognizing the dangers and being able to escape the same fate are two different things.

One of the key problems is that the two halves of creating a new OS--programming and testing--are both getting longer to accomplish. On the development side, Microsoft has spent years re-architecting its software development practices in order to boost security, and such rigor also takes time. On top of that, the time spent testing new code has increased, although automated tools have helped some. Chairman Bill Gates noted on Tuesday that as many as half of the worker-hours put into Vista have gone into testing.

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Microsoft also faces the challenge of trying to support all of the hundreds of millions of Windows machines out there. The company frequently takes pride in showing off how its latest and greatest operating system can run even the oldest applications.

"We are very backwards-compatible people," Gates said at an Office developer conference this week.

Apple Computer, which has taken a very different approach, has not been afraid to cut support for older Mac machines and software in its efforts to modernize its operating system. The results are a narrower security footprint and a much smaller number of types of systems against which to test.

Michael Cherry, a Directions on Microsoft analyst, said that although Microsoft is in a somewhat different situation, it can take lessons from Apple. The Mac seller took a one-time hit when it made major architectural changes with OS X and since then has focused on more modest, but noticeable, feature enhancements.

"There haven't been huge, massive changes," Cherry said. "But people have looked at them and said, 'Nice job. Let's buy it.'"

related coverage
Vista delayed
What does it mean for PC makers, buyers and Microsoft?

Cherry said that Microsoft shouldn't need to make significant changes to most of the underlying architecture of Windows at this point--only occasional upgrades should be needed, to add things such as new networking protocols. "Everything else should be about putting fancy sinks on top of the plumbing," Cherry said.

With Vista, Microsoft originally hoped to make major changes to the underlying code, adding in a new file storage mechanism called WinFS, along with all-new graphics and communications methods. It eventually had to pull out WinFS entirely and scale back several other architectural changes in order to make the project more manageable.

In the future, Microsoft may well look to focus more energy in interim releases on updating some of the companion programs that are part of Windows, as opposed to the core operating system code. Gates talked on Monday of the need, for example, to update Internet Explorer more often.

But Cherry said it's more than just a different approach that is needed.

CONTINUED: Changes ahoy…
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Maybe if they're IBM now they, like IBM, in the future move completey to research or business backend as now they are supporting OPenGL fully on Vis-DUH only because Sony Playstation 3 is completely Linux OpenGL/Xorg7 EnterpriseDB based. All open source.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Forced Upgrades
Microsoft has to please investors, and that means increasing marketshare and revenue, not decreasing it. Unfortunately, this is a huge order to fill. As a result, every few years they have to force all their customers onto a new version of Windows, even though there isn't really a compelling reason for businesses to do it.

So what does MS do? They create a compelling reason to upgrade by stopping support and security updates for their older versions.

Hardware manufacturers love Microsoft too, because when these companies all have to upgrade to the new Windows, they will have to upgrade all their hardware too -- this will especially be true of Vista.
Posted by alucinor (71 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Just as MS finally stabilizes a products security and functionality they stop support for it. With each product release more non-essential fluff is added to entice buyers, not to mention that manufacturers NEED that extra fluff (lines of code) to market ever-increasing computer speed and throughput.
If MS were to ever decide to extend the life of a product to 10 years it would destroy PC manufacturers ability to push their commodity products to the public.
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
Link Flag
Market Demands
Nice conspiracy theory, but it doesn't really fly. Do you really
think there was no demand from business to move from the
world of Windows 3 to 95? Or that it's just the OS requirements
that have driven CPU speeds and memory size?

Business is inherently conservative - hence the fact it stuck with
DOS for long enough when all 16-bit home computers had GUI
systems - but it still wants progress. New OS versions as of
themselves aren't that interesting to business, but applications
delivered on top are. Hence they stuck with NT until there were
application reasons to move.

Sure, there were a few people who wanted to stick on their NT
systems forever. Well, there wasn't anything actually stopping
them - we use systems at work that are long out of support. You
don't NEED O/S support, particularly once something has
become stable and the problems known. Yes, it does mean you
can't get new hardware that runs the old OS, but that's your
choice. (And if the new hardware comes with a backwards
compatible OS it's not a huge problem).
Posted by JulesLt (110 comments )
Link Flag
Forcing customers to upgrade?
Maybe you were kidding? Microsoft continued to provide major fixes for Windows 98 until the middle of last year and continues to provide full support for win2k. There hasn't even been an operating system release every few years since the 95 to 98 to 2k run. And as for new operating systems requiring newer hardware...whoa, god forbid someone need a better rig to run the latest and greatest software out there. Maybe game developers should stop making new hardware a prerequisite too.
Posted by uuizdum (1 comment )
Link Flag
When has MS ever released anything on time?
When has MS ever released anything on time?
Posted by PeterK2003 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I'd rather wait
I'd rather wait than receive a buggy release. I think MS made the right decision.
Posted by pierrot.robert (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Bill Gates get's it right - for a change
"We are very backwards-compatible people,".

Tat, in a nutshell, has to be 80% of the problem. M$ continues to support software that is positively ancient. If they have to retain older "creaking" OS components to do so, it should be no surprise when the OS architecture is out of date.

Many of the "bugs" may well just be software being forced to do something it wasn't created to do.

Looking back from a 2007 release of Vista, people will see XP 5 years old & 98 something like 9 years old. Even in todays mature & relatively stable car market, how many manufacturers limit how long they support older cars ?

I think a time has to come when M$ draws a line in the sand & says "NO MORE" - dropping support for certain OS's & software older than a certain age. They may well need to offer certain incentives, such as coupons perhaps, for people to cut over. But the time is rapidly approaching for an ALL NEW OS.
Posted by (409 comments )
Link Flag
Well there are already planned patches for VISTA
Well, maybe you better wait for another year then because there is
still underlying problems coming out with this release in January.
But be calm its normal for Microsoft.
Posted by curtegg (38 comments )
Link Flag
What makes you think it still won't be buggy swiss cheese like all
previous Windows releases?
Posted by Gromit801 (393 comments )
Link Flag
Regular updates real simple
Downloadable patches for individual problems (APARs).
Downloadable roll-ups of for various subsystems and components (PTFs).
Monthly cumulative service packs with all maintenance to date, downloadable or shipped by subscription, or orderable from MS support web site for nominal cost (shipping/handling).
Quarterly refresh install disks for the OS (WinXP/Win2K) and/or applications (Office) containing preinstalled service packs. Could be used for a fresh reinstall or just a update-reinstall to bring OS or Apps up to date.

IBM did it in the 70's and 80's and it works quite well when implemented correctly.
Posted by td1138 (42 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Actually, what MS is doing now works
I agree with Tom on this one, for anyone who's been using MS update the new paradigm of updating for free from the web is working seamlessly and is a lot cheaper than having to wait for a service pack and pay for it. I really don't know where the article is coming from; if there are users out there who aren't jiggy with the new paradigm, even though it saves them money and losses from viruses, then whose fault is that? And anyway, what viable alternative is there right now in the marketplace to Windows? Mac has already decided to make pricing themself out of range of most consumers a kind of business model and the Linux people fail to comprehend the essential relationship between hardware and software on the retail side, so how can Microsoft's new, cheaper, seamless updating system be hurting them?
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
Link Flag
They'll have to rename it, again!!
They'll just rename it again as a Marketing ploy.

Posted by technewsjunkie (1265 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Its actually right in the article
"We are very backwards-compatible people," Gates said at an Office developer conference this week."

"Apple Computer, which has taken a very different approach, has not been afraid to cut support for older Mac machines and software in its efforts to modernize its operating system. The results are a narrower security footprint and a much smaller number of types of systems against which to test."

So big deal when it comes to Apple, anyone can completely cut off the earlier versions and come out with new ones, Apple support has people on the chopping block all the time, where windows supports everything back
Posted by mcepat (118 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Backwards compatible
To an extent Microsoft does the very same thing, olny they dont come right out and say it. Every new version of Windows comes with system requirements so artificially jacked up that you can barely run in (if at all) and any compiter more than a year or two old, and even then you usually have to upgrade something like memory or your hard drive. Microsoft also no longer suoorts win 98 or prior. So Apple is not the only one, they just go about it differently. At least you can run Mac OS X on older hardware a bit better than you can with the windows counterparts.
Posted by ericblr0716 (83 comments )
Link Flag
The article was a bit wrong.
There are two ways to look at backward compatibility.

1) How old is the hardware that can run the new OS and

2) How old is the software that can run on the new OS and

Measured by the former, Apple is clearly superior. OS X 10.4
which offers all the features of VISTA works just fine on
hardware from 2000, as long as you give it 512MB of RAM or
more. VISTA will not run on PC hardware that old.

Measured by the latter, Apple is better than the article claims,
but perhaps not as good as MS. Also, this is not something
Apple completely controls. Apple's developer guidelines, if
precisely followed by developers, will allow ANY Mac application
created during the last 20 years to run on today's PowerPC
hardware and OS. The new exception to that rule comes with the
Intel Macs, since they will no longer run pre-OS X (aka "Classic")
software. Apple has chosen to leave that behind.
Posted by open-mind (1027 comments )
Link Flag
Too Much Gunk In The OS
In a misguided attempt to be #1 in every market segment, Microsoft has succeeded in throwing so much gunk into the OS that it takes years to create a new version. And it seems that even with more than adequate computer hardware, the OS just lugs along.

I think a better approach for Microsoft would be to rethink what they consider to be truly part of the operating system, and realize that non-critical things like Mediaplayer and Internet Explorer should be decoupled and released (and maybe sold) independently, like in a Plus Pack. Also, backwards compatability for apps and hardware could be achieved by offering those who truly need it a VMWARE type product. Customers who don't need support for stuff more than 3 years old should not be penalized in a misguided attempt to support 10 year old stuff . A smaller, lighter OS that just runs current apps supremely well would benefit everyone. It would be available sooner, run better, and cost less (less QA expenses).
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Oh No
Keith - don't talk common sense in here.
Posted by (409 comments )
Link Flag
Re: Too Much Gunk In The OS
You've just described Linux and Mac OSX
Posted by SparXXXie (16 comments )
Link Flag
3.x or 95
Recently, using a few older PCs and Virutal PC on Mac, I installed
full versions of both Windows NT 3.5 and Windows 95. It was bit
of challenge to get everything working, especially with no time
free. But the effect was overall good. Both OSs were stable, and
I've not seen the Blue Screen of Death once. No viruses, no
malware. Nothing. True, I can't run the newest version of Word,
but the newest version of Word is like the newest version of
Madden: Little change in overall product.

My games work fine, depending if it's DOS or Windows. Windows
games get the 95 install, DOS games go straight to the DOS
version that NT 3.5 installs. Internet works fine, and a recent
version of Mozilla handles 95 well, while I just use IE 5.5 for 3.5.

I'm really wondering what the hell XP was made for? Lots of
users I know still use 98 or 95 and seem to have no complaints.

Ever since I bought XP in 2001, if memory serves me right, I've
been constantly hitting the Windows Update option. Week after
week I have to update this OS, and sometimes the updates ruin a
perfectly working OS by causing script errors, Visual .NET
processes to malfunction, closing some holes while letting
others open up, etc., etc.

I will XP Pro props for one thing, my Mac home servers never
had a better companion to store and back-up data on. XP is very
good for file storage in NTFS format. Since I don't web surf on
these machines anymore, large amounts of MP3s and the like
get stored on these things, including huge amounts of graphic
files, programming routines, and video/sound.

Every OS has it's pros or cons. Since I don't play my 200+ PC
games anymore, I don't need to worry about that aspect, ergo,
go use a Mac to do finances, my studies, research, etc. I usually
use the XP machines' screens to run fish screen savers, which I
find very relaxing.

I'm hoping Vista does more than I'm expecting, like Mac OS X
Jaguar and up has. Or maybe I'll just stick to XP.
Posted by fakespam (239 comments )
Reply Link Flag
windows 95
I experienced just the opposite. Windows 95 and 98 both always gave me blue screens, general protection faults, page faults, you name it. I couldnt stand either of them. Nt 4.0 was somewhat better, and I actually used it for a while only because I had windows software that I needed to run. Windows 2000 was decent, but windows XP was nothing but 2000 with bloat and a clumsy interface. When Apple released Mac OS X tiger, I got me a Powerbook, and I hope to never have to resort to Windows again. I love the Mac OS X, and I dont by this argument that OS's are good for some things and not for others. Os X in just about every way is far superior than any of Microsoft's offerings. I even like it better than Linux (just because its easier to get around).
Posted by ericblr0716 (83 comments )
Link Flag
If keeping things backwards compatible is such a problem them maybe they shouldn't. I mean do we really need to run DOS and Windows 95, or 98 software? Why should the rest of us have to suffer for something we don't use and the rest shouldn't use.

Personally, I think it is this backwards compatibility thing that not only slows innovation in the OS it also keeps innovation out of the hardware. I think this is why Intel hasn't had a major technology break through and also why we still have computers that us DMA and IRQ. We should be well past that. It also explains why most of the "progress" in computer technology is well nearly faked. Intel and AMD keep saying they are coming out with faster processors and the like, but are they really? I just don't see the speed difference betwee my old P4 2.8 and the fastest processor/motherboard than either of these companies have. It just isn't there.

If people don't want to upgrade to the lastest and greatest in OSes and hardware. That is fine, but the software and hardware companies need to stop designing for them and design for those that do. Otherwise innovation isn't going any further.

Posted by Heebee Jeebies (632 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I'm confused...
Who's the lumbering giant, Steve Balmer or Microsoft et al?
Posted by J_Satch (571 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"We are very backwards-compatible people" ???
Thats rubbish. The amount of windows programs broken between
different versions is tremendous. I work in an envirorment with
4000 PCs.We have frozen at W2K as XP breaks so many programs.
We had to bite the bullet when we upgraded from NT to W2K and
had to retender for some replacement applications to replace the
ones that broke. Since then we have discovered Linux and found it
to be vastly more reliable and better support for different hardware
even if still quirky with messy copies of messy windows like KDE.
Posted by murbeck (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I actually suppose WinFS to be a really interesting filesystem. I've searched over to get more on it and came upon this source <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> If you are interested you might wish to give it a glance also.
Posted by colllar (4 comments )
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