I had a chance this week to chat with Jim Allchin, group vice president of Microsoft's Platforms Group, about Windows XP. In development for 18 months, XP finally moves Microsoft's consumer OS into the Windows 2000/NT code base and offers a slew of experience-based improvements, a new UI, and other additions to the Win2K product that the enterprise has embraced. But in recent months, competitors, special-interest groups, and even the US government have dogged XP, making the time leading up to the OS's release one of the more trying in Microsoft's history. I want to step back from the controversy and focus on XP—the product—and the benefits it brings to people, at home and in the workplace. Here's what Mr. Allchin had to say about XP.
Paul Thurrott (PT): Before we start, can you provide a quick overview of what you do at Microsoft?
Jim Allchin (JA): (Laughs) Well, I run the Platforms Group at Microsoft. All of the things you have historically thought of as an OS fall into this category. This includes tools such as Visual Studio \[VS\], content like microsoft.com, digital media, as well as the .NET Enterprise Servers. And Windows, of course. Anything that's platform-related is in my organization.
PT: You've always been the "server guy" at Microsoft. Has XP and its focus on the desktop changed anything for you?
JA: I certainly have spent a lot of time in the enterprise space! But even with Windows 2000 \[Win2K\], we made a lot of progress on the client. I'm quite proud of the work we did on Windows 2000 Professional \[Win2K Pro\], but ... I took a sabbatical last year, and it became clear how far we needed to go. I was frustrated to see that people doubted whether the PC quality was there because most people are still using Windows 9x. Last summer, we took a vacation on a boat in the Mediterranean. Everyone had PCs, and I brought along my Sony laptop running Windows 2000. But everyone else had some version of Windows 98, and they all had different problems. I was stunned at how productive people can be with PCs: They were editing photos and videos, communicating over cell phones through the IR port, and playing music. But they were also frustrated because Windows would crash. ... I came back \[from my sabbatical\] with a vengeance. I wanted to see how far we could push to make this next version better than ever before. So, I have a deep respect for the consumer now despite my enterprise background.
PT: What are your proudest accomplishments with XP? Is there anything you wish you could have done better with this version?
JA: First, I really think we did a good job on scenario thinking; we thought through all \[types of\] scenarios end to end. We tried to be obvious.... If you're going to do this task, what do you need to do? We're not finished, of course, but we've made huge gains with XP. You plug in a camera, and it just works. We made it simpler than ever to get those images, organize them, edit them, and publish them. Previously, you had to know to use the right-mouse button to get a lot done in Windows, but most people don't know how to use it. The changes in the user interface \[UI\], with the Web view on the left, helps people through the tasks they're doing.... There are many examples, but here's one that's not obvious: Someone buys a new machine. What do they do? They need to get stuff from their old machine to the new machine. We've been working for years to separate the code from the data, but we never made the OS able to transfer that data to a new PC. In Windows XP, the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard makes this \[data transfer\] easy.
Beyond the scenarios, I'm also proud of our relentless pursuit of quality in this release. Think of it in context: An infinite number of permutations need to be tested. I'm very proud that we've been able to raise the quality in the PC ecosystem by working closely with PC vendors, HSVs, and ISVs \[Independent Software Vendors\]. I feel very, very good about that. I want people to be happy with their experience.
PT: Many people question whether XP is a decent upgrade for business users or those users who have already moved to Win2K. What makes XP desirable to the enterprise?
JA: Many things. We know, quantitatively, that XP offers higher reliability than Windows 2000. 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 video conferences or audio calls within the company. Remote Desktop lets users go mobile and connect to their work desktops.... 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 between different places, and it works without needing to be configured. Windows XP offers more reliability. 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.
PT: How does XP fit in with .NET? It seems that Microsoft will add some of the most exciting XP services after the product is finalized, through Windows Messenger and MSN Alerts. What are some of Microsoft's plans for extending XP into the .NET space?
JA: There are multiple dimensions to \[those plans\], and some are things we haven't talked about yet, but we will soon. Windows XP is a platform for XML processing, first of all, so that's in the system. You can integrate with Passport credentials if you want, and store your personal information in a single place. If it's not obvious, we view Windows Messenger as a platform. Soon, what we mean about \[Windows Messenger as a platform\] will become visible in XP.... Who knows about the future? We're trying to make XP a good client and platform for .NET.
PT: With XP's move to the 2000/NT code base, it's obviously more stable and secure than Windows Me or Windows 9x. But why will my parents—or any other nontechnical, average users—want to upgrade to XP?
JA: (Laughs) Why wouldn't they want to?
PT: Right. Actually, I can't wait to upgrade my parents to this release.
JA: I'll be buying my mother-in-law an XP machine immediately. My mom wanted to buy a digital camera last year, and I wouldn't let her because I knew what the experience would be like. She wouldn’t know where the pictures were, wouldn't be able to share them with us; it goes on and on. Well guess what? Today, my mom has a digital camera with Windows XP and she loves it. She can print pictures all by herself. The bottom line is that I think we've done a pretty good job enabling great experiences. It \[XP\] is simpler to use, and that's important for anyone that has supported PCs for family and friends. People will know it's more reliable. I watch the feedback, and generally people love this product. So I'm very proud of this \[OS\] because it will improve people's lives. My wife can see me here at work using Windows Messenger. And my mom and mother-in-law can see our son; my mom is in Boston. The technology was there before, but it wasn't easy to use. Now it is. I'm incredibly excited about the benefits to the average user.
PT: Do you see XP inspiring new types of hardware? What types of PCs and hardware will we see that take advantage of XP's unique features?
JA: There will be some more multimedia-oriented PCs created and more mobile devices. In terms of peripherals, there will be many examples. Array microphones for super-quality voice conversations. More Web cams will be sold for video conferencing. More high speed buses—like USB 2.0 and IEEE-1394—for moving more bits more quickly because people are going to want to edit video. Obviously, the Tablet PC runs Windows XP, in a new form factor with a new high-resolution digitizer input. \[XP\] is going to transform the way knowledge workers use the PC. At its core, even the Xbox is a Windows XP system. People are going to want burnable DVD drives so they can take home movies and burn them onto DVD to share them with their family. That's going to become commonplace.
PT: Microsoft would like an XP-based PC to sit at the hub of a connected home. Why is an XP-based PC better than alternatives such as residential gateways or set-top boxes?
JA: The PC is the natural hub because it has power and flexibility. Consider the general-purpose approach of the PC. We can do the most innovation on the PC because you're not locked into a device you have to throw away because you can't upgrade it. In any area where there's innovation, it's going to require a general-purpose machine. The PC can do editing. Video. Pictures. Processing.... It's not just a display-oriented device. The PC is the classic winner here because it offers the best bang for the buck, and it's still simple. That's why we believe the PC will be the hub. It can talk to other devices. It has a single connection out to the Internet. It's just a natural situation: One PC, lots of connected devices. How else are those devices going to connect?
PT: Any final thoughts on XP?
JA: 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. We knew what was wrong, of course, \[because\] we support our relatives. But this release will prove that we're really listening.