Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin is the point man in Microsoft's plans for the future. As the driving force behind Windows and a member of the company's Business Leadership Team, he's perhaps the individual most responsible for Microsoft's past—and future—successes. Allchin came to Microsoft in 1990 from Banyan Systems (now ePresence), where he was the principal architect of the VINES distributed network OS. He initially worked on Microsoft networking products but quickly moved into the then-secretive Windows NT group to help develop enterprise solutions. With Microsoft's move to Windows XP, Allchin found himself grappling with the differing expectations of enterprise and home-based consumers.
Allchin maintains a more private persona than many other Microsoft executives do. He doesn't often make public appearances at trade shows and other large events, although he has been a steadying presence at the company's internal developer events, analyst meetings, and strategy sessions. But when XP was in beta, Allchin took center stage, guiding the merger of Microsoft's consumer and business Windows products into one NT-based product line. Since Microsoft first hatched XP (as Whistler) in December 1999, Allchin has been accessible, open, and honest about his plans for this important product.
Throughout XP's 18-month development, Allchin has remained a staunch supporter of Windows as the platform of choice for both business and home users. This year, I've had several opportunities—among them, a private interview, an XP Technical Preview, and a press conference call—to hear Allchin's take on Microsoft's most recent OS. The following compilation of those discussions and interviews reveals that this man is clearly excited about his work and eager to work one-on-one with customers to solve problems.
A Solid Foundation
"I spent last summer away in Europe," Allchin related during one discussion, "and everyone had PCs \[running Windows 9x\]. I was somewhat humbled by all the productivity that was going on. But seeing the frustration users faced ... I became a changed person. Now I want to spend all my time on the consumer stuff." With XP, Allchin said, Microsoft has a chance to use Windows 2000's solid code base to ease consumers' frustration.
"Who wouldn't want a device that was intelligent, dependable, and approachable?" Allchin asked. "A device that lets you experience life better? We need to change the bad rap that the PC has." Though Microsoft works with hardware makers on various PC designs and initiatives, the company can have the most influence on consumer satisfaction through the Windows OS. And Allchin promised that the next version of Windows—XP—will be a "solid foundation for all users. We did a good job with Windows 2000, but there are weaknesses. We drove up quality, but didn't do a great job with hardware and software compatibility. We didn't try to change the experience. It wasn't task oriented. So now we're taking that foundation and addressing the problems. We're improving the experience, and the quality of this release will be even higher than it was in Windows 2000. With Windows XP, the focus is on improving the activities you do with the machine. We're making features more discoverable than they were in Windows 2000 or Windows Me. Joe Belfiore's \[shell\] team has worked on a task-oriented approach."
Features That Make a Difference
Allchin admitted that aside from XP's new UI, the upgrade won't be that noticeable for Win2K Professional users. "But remember that most people haven't seen Windows 2000 yet," he said. "Think of the experience change from Windows 9x to XP." And that change, as he noted, is dramatic. Allchin and the rest of the XP team are excited about the product, which is the most significant upgrade to Windows since Win95.
Allchin was also quick to point out that XP represents an important upgrade for business users. "We know, quantitatively, that XP offers higher reliability than Windows 2000," he told me. "We know it's better in terms of security. But there are features in Windows XP that really make a difference too. With Remote Assistance, business users can have a less hostile Help desk. For collaboration, Windows Messenger is a cool tool for quickly exchanging videoconferences or audio calls within the company. Remote Desktop lets users go mobile and still connect to their work desktop. (Microsoft's developers no longer have to keep a copy of their code at home. Now, they use Remote Desktop to connect to their work PC.) Mobile users will see huge benefits from Windows XP. There's better laptop support. The wireless support is phenomenal: Take a laptop and move it different places, and it works without needing to be configured. Windows XP offers more reliability \[and especially\] resilience. If someone installs a bad driver or the system configuration dies for some reason, there is a checkpoint for rolling back the system. This will save support calls. Honestly, there are quite a few features and capabilities in this release that make it perfect for business users.
"First, we've improved the foundation," Allchin said. "We cleaned things up and fixed compatibility. We've expanded Windows from the current application-centric view of the world to a richer world of experiences, which is not just a marketing term. Our goal was to enable richer life experiences with this release. Think of it this way: Before, Windows integrated applications. Today, with XP, Windows integrates experiences. Tie in devices and Web services, and you've got the hub of a connected home or business."
A Piece of the Puzzle
As for .NET, Allchin said that XP is a step to the programmable Internet that Microsoft is working on. "Windows XP will integrate Passport and the ability for .NET events and notifications to come into the product," he said. "You will be able to rendezvous and find others." In a question-and-answer session, Allchin discussed .NET's role in XP. "We have done a confusing job explaining what .NET is, but we're doing a lot in terms of branding now. We will appropriately decorate XP with .NET included as an ingredient. We made a decision that .NET is a platform, but it's more an ingredient brand than a product. We know it's confusing now, and we want to be precise about what it means if you use the .NET brand.
"XP will not carry the bits for the .NET Common Language Runtime (CLR)," he added. "However, Visual Studio.NET can create packages for end users, and applications can ship with those. It's a timing issue.
"On the server side, a piece of the puzzle will be included with the product. But it's in flux right now," Allchin explained. "What can we get done in the amount of time we have? It would be easier if we had the CLR there. But think of the CLR as the C \[programming language\] runtime: You can get it from a variety of places. The OS itself isn't using the CLR, but it might be used on the server. There are things in ASP.NET we'd like to do for remote administration and the like. You can get the CLR from an application. Meta Internet services will be included: Passport for authentication, Access for events and notifications, and Rendezvous services (remote voice or video calls).
"Windows XP is a platform for XML processing, first of all, so that's in the system," he told me. "It's in there. You can integrate with Passport credentials if you want and store your personal information in a single place. We view Windows Messenger as a platform. Soon, what we mean about that will become visible in XP. We're trying to make XP a good client and platform for .NET."
Listening to Consumers
After focusing on the enterprise for several years, Allchin seemed genuinely excited to be making such strides in the consumer space. "I certainly have spent a lot of time in the enterprise space!" Allchin told me. "But even with Windows 2000, we made a lot of progress on the client. I'm quite proud of the work we did on Windows 2000 Professional. But I wanted to see how far we could push to make this next version better than ever before."
Microsoft has been promising to bring the NT code base to consumers for years, and XP will finally come through on that promise. "I am personally hard core on quality," Allchin confided, telling me that he's proud of Microsoft's "relentless pursuit of quality" in the XP release. "There are no excuses this time. I'm the ultimate dreamer and perfectionist, but compared to what's out there, Windows XP is a huge step ahead. I put my heart into this one, and so did the whole team here. We had a Real People, Real Beta program, where we set up regular people with Windows XP. We watched videotapes of those people using their machines and it was just humbling. This release will prove that we're really listening."