REDMOND, Wash.--The last stop for Vista is a windowless conference room in Building 26, on Microsoft's sprawling campus in the Seattle suburbs.
Each day, members of the Windows team gather inside this "shiproom" to go over the bugs that remain, and to debate which of these can still be fixed in the days left until the product is declared finished, a milestone that is expected any time now.
The intense "end game," as these final weeks are known, is a well-worn tradition inside the shiproom, which is on the third floor of the Windows development building. The small room, with its dated, dark wood conference table has been the war room for every Windows release since Windows 2000.
On the wall are knick-knacks from past projects, as well as clocks showing the minutes ticking away in a dozen time zones. The clocks serve as a reminder that Microsoft has a deadline to meet. The company has scheduled a November 30 press event in New York to announce the availability to businesses of Windows Vista, while computer makers need to get the final code in order to finish their testing and get Vista on PCs in time for a broad launch in January.
The once-daily shiproom meetings have become twice-a-day events as the product has neared completion. Projected onto a screen is a list of unresolved issues that need to be addressed before Vista can leave. There were about five dozen such issues at a meeting last Wednesday morning.
Sven Hallauer, who heads up the process, moved quickly through the list as about 40 programmers, nearly all with a laptop in tow, worked to keep up. At each sticking-point, the person responsible for tracking the issue gave a one-sentence report on where things were.
In one case, there was a bug in the Slovenian release of Vista. It was quickly tabled as not pressing, given that Slovenian is not in the first or even second wave of localized versions of Vista. Other reports came in--this software program has a hitch, this particular laptop has trouble waking up from sleep.
Some of the glitches were already known. Many were things that have already been fixed, and a few were too new and need investigating. None appeared to be a show-stopper.
Hallauer had predicted that the morning's meeting would be fairly short--maybe a half-hour. After 20 minutes, the group decided that things seemed pretty good. Perhaps they wouldn't need to revise the code again.
At the afternoon meeting, though, the team was forced to revisit that decision. It turned out that there was an issue within Vista's new diagnostics: if a piece of software failed to install properly, the system would nonetheless get a report that it had been successful. Hallauer and team decided to spin one more build.
It's all part of the process. Several times, Hallauer and others have thought that they had the final version of Vista done, only to find something that meant the team had to put in another fix.
Two weeks ago, Microsoft thought it had something that promised to be the final version. But within a couple of days, two new glitches had surfaced. The issues were arcane, but significant enough. In one case, there was a potential problem with burning DVDs. If a Vista machine attempted to burn information to a blank DVD directly from a network drive, there was a chance that data could be lost, if the network was slow. The other problem had to do with offline folders: Under certain circumstances, applications weren't being notified if the cache was full.
"That could end up with users losing their data or having a really bad experience," Hallauer said.
While it seems natural to go ahead and fix such bugs, changing the code at this point is a big deal. There isn't time for the full regression testing, which investigates whether a fix in one area has some hidden impact somewhere else in the system. Instead, teams must create solutions that only touch a part of the code and count on their ability to not break something elsewhere.
And not everyone agrees which things need to be tackled. The battles inside the shiproom can get testy sometimes. These days, there are certainly folks who feel Vista is ready to send on its way. Others keep lobbying for particular fixes, including some requests made late last week.
Hallauer said he doesn't see his job as just saying "no"--but at this point, it is certainly about only saying "yes" to the right things. "Through most of the product cycle, the teams are fairly independent," he said. "Now that we are at the end of the release cycle, it is more (about) taking stronger reins."
Sharks and limpets
While Vista is not glitch-free, the product is finally coming together. When Microsoft does find a bug, it gets classified into one of two categories.
One is "sharks"--bugs that everyone agrees need to be fixed before the product ships. And then there are "limpets," which are issues that can be fixed, but where the need is less critical. In those cases, the fixes are developed, but don't get implemented unless a shark comes along that they can use to float into the code.
Retiring Windows chief Jim Allchin doesn't like the shark and limpet analogy. To him, nearly every bug is a shark worth fixing.
"(If) there's a fix, I want to put it in," Allchin said. "It should be clear that date means not much to me, that quality is much more important."
But Allchin is finding plenty of resistance these days. Microsoft is under a fair bit of pressure to get Vista out the door.
The latest shark, though, means that he can get in one of the changes he wanted. For months, the company has been struggling with an issue in the Vista set-up process. As the operating system was loading, the screen would appear to freeze up, with no indication that the installation was still progressing--although it was.
Developers put that problem right. But as a result, a dialog box that asked users to identify the type of network they have was popping up twice.
To Hallauer, it was an issue that might or might not have justified a new build. Allchin was convinced it did.
"When I heard about it, I thought, there's no way...(We've got) to fix this," Allchin said.
The unrelated software-installing problem let Allchin win the day.
Microsoft has long touted the power management features in Windows Vista. Apparently, the development team for the operating system also works pretty well on battery power.
Last Friday, as Microsoft was scrambling to ensure there were no problems with the latest Vista build, the power went out in Buildings 26 and 27, home to a good chunk of the Windows development team.
In an e-mail to the team, Windows boss Jim Allchin made it clear that no power was "no excuse" for not getting the final testing work done. "If you're in an area that has no power, find some place to continue to work until power is restored," Allchin wrote. "We're almost there. Nothing has stopped us before, and this isn't going to stop us either!"
The outage did knock several labs in the building offline, including the one that cranks out new builds of Windows. Luckily, the company didn't need to spin a new build that day.
"The burn lab is continuing to hand out DVDs, so come get one if you need to get work done," Allchin said.
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
Looking inside Vista
A peek at the Windows Vista Sidebar feature.February 2, 2006
CNET Reviews: Vista slide show
Get a look at Vista features and screenshots. January 5, 2006
Editor: Karen Said
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Kristina Wood
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