WinHEC keynotes show MS losing Windows plot

Somehow the roadmap has got rockier, and it isn't as easy as it should have been by now

Opinion The keynote speeches given at the Microsoft hardware engineering conference in Los Angeles show just how rocky Microsoft's roadmap for Windows has become. After reading them, we were left with the general feeling that Microsoft has lost control of Windows development, and that long-term strategy has been abandoned for short-term gain. Steve Ballmer was more subdued than usual, perhaps trying to gird himself with some presidential dignity. It was all too clear that his desire to renew the vision and dream of the last 25 years implies that Microsoft has achieved power at the price of the industry having clumsy, unreliable systems and that there is a real need for a quantum shift to a better world. Part of what has been bequeathed to Microsoft's Windows developers came from Ballmer, who some ten years ago used to run Microsoft's Windows development efforts. He knew little then, and even less now, although he effectively admitted that it was the semiconductor industry that deserved most of the credit for what had been achieved. In reviewing Windows, he mentioned a Data Center Edition of Win 2000 without elaborating about it, and then pitched into a demo of 64-bit Windows 2000. Although he didn't mention it, this is the group run by the original Windows NT architect Dave Cutler, who spends much of his time nowadays in racing cars sponsored by Microsoft. Ballmer noted that the feedback he was getting was that Microsoft did not achieve "enough absolute performance to take PC architecture to the highest end." That should please IBM, and dismay Microsoft-only customers. Ballmer put it on the line that Microsoft needed more scalability, availability, reliability and parallelisation. Ballmer's demo of Microsoft's new "Windows Server Appliance" showed that the wizards were not really so wizardly, and that there is still considerable tinkering to do before the machine becomes like an electric kettle that you take from the box and plug in. Ballmer's conclusion was that "We've got to remove complexity. We've got to add relevance." Right on, Steve: but why is this not possible now? The most noticeable thread that probably united Microsoft's presenters and the audience is a common interest in games. Ballmer and others seem to be deeply involved in getting games working for their children. The audience was evidently full of semi-grown up propeller heads who spend inordinate amounts of time playing (and possibly developing) games. The conference had little to say about Microsoft in the business world for the simple reason that it is an alien world to Microsoft's culture. Microsoft's nerds have no business experience, which accounts for many of the unreal aspects of the Office suite. It probably wasn't good for Ballmer to admit: "We weren't sure for a while what we'd be delivering in the year 2000 exactly." Although Gates was sure last year, he was wrong of course, so Ballmer pitched in to the version of Windows 2000 that was in fact a third edition of Windows 98: "The right approach next year is to continue to enhance the Windows 98 product". So far as Windows CE was concerned, Ballmer said that "We're still going to pursue the CE strategy." which made it sound as though there had been some doubt. And thereafter? Keep taking the medicine, we suspect. The Java aspects of universal plug-and-pray were going to be handled by HP, Ballmer announced, probably with some relief lest Microsoft be congratulated on using the wrong tool for the job, in view of its altercation with Sun. The death of the PC was not on Ballmer's agenda, he noted, contrary to what Business Week had suggested, although he was game (again) for renewing the vision. Five minutes of questions were announced, but only one was answered, and it was said to have been submitted the previous evening. It seemed like a crude piece of stage management to stop embarrassing questions, and to give Ballmer the chance to give a position statement on Linux. We quote the question and answer in full: QUESTION: "And, Mr. Ballmer, what is your opinion about Linux and open source software, from the Microsoft point of view?" BALLMER: "Well, as we've maintained fairly steadfastly, we're in a very competitive environment. And it's good to see people doing innovative work, it keeps us moving forward. I think there's a lot of value to the kind of software that we build, that we test professionally, we work on the installation, we validate the device drivers. "The customer gets an incredible value out of the additional efforts that we put into our software. So I don't think the great attraction to Linux is the fact that it's free. If these new devices require very low price points in order for you to build them, we'll work with you on that. The key thing I think that we're trying to really understand and decide what to do about is this notion of open source. There is a level of flexibility, or at least a level of comfort that people have when they have the source code just in case. "Most CIOs I talk to don't actually want their people to touch the source. "They don't want to introduce new variations, new perturbations, new confusion. Most hardware manufacturers I talk to don't really want a lot of additional software engineering costs in the price of creating a new device. "But, there's a comfort level there, and we're, of course, thinking with great interest about that. We're really studying and talking to customers about their reaction to this source code availability, and as we figure out what that means for us, we'll certainly let people know." No applause was noted at the end of the statement. ®

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