094. First Public Windows 7 Demo
“I’m superenthused about what it [Windows 7] will do in lots of ways.” — Bill Gates in an April 2008 meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank [!]
In an era of huge software projects with a zillion new features in every release, there’s little more exciting than the first public demos. Such demos are also incredibly stressful to pull off. In addition to all the work to just get the code to demo-ready condition, there’s a lead-up to public disclosure, briefing reporters, and aligning partners. The first demo of Windows 7 was all those things and more, because we’d (or just I) had been so quiet for so long. This is the story of unveiling at least one small part of Windows 7 along with my own personal screw up along the way.
Back to 093: Netbook Mania
The second of three development milestones for Windows 7 was originally scheduled to end on March 26, 2008 which was eight months after the project start, Vision Day. We ended up finishing on May 9, which was a slip of 44 days. For any massive software project, this was fantastic. For Windows, it was doubly so.
It was even better than that. The new organization was starting to take hold. The product was emerging. The team was executing. We were building what we committed to build, and it was working. The “daily builds” were happening and by and large the team was running Windows 7 every day.
After two years in this role leading Windows, I finally felt like it would be ok to emerge and talk about what comes next. It is difficult to put into words the constant gnawing, sick-to-my-stomach feeling up until now wondering if we would deliver. We had definitely promised but for nearly 20 years I had seen leaders across the company say “the team is feeling good” or “we’re making good progress” or “the milestone is complete” only to see the project unravel or simply recognize it was never actually raveled.
For months I had been under immense pressure from OEM partners, our OEM account managers, enterprise account managers, investor relations, Intel, retailers, not to mention SteveB, and many more to just articulate a ship date or some plan. Hardly a week went by without receiving a forwarded email detailing the costs of not disclosing what we were up to.
Yet I was perhaps irrationally concerned that I would put something out there only to have to recant or adjust what was said. Many told me I was being overly cautious. Many said that it is better to open up communication and worry about having to correct it later. I just couldn’t shake the concerns. I felt Microsoft had one chance to make up for the issues with Vista.
Many perceived the Windows team was trying to become more like Apple and close off all discussion of a product until the moment it was announced. This was not the case at all. Windows is a different product, as described previously, and to bring it to market requires a huge ecosystem of support and that invests time and money. There’s no way to surprise the market with Windows because an entire industry needs to know about it, prepare, and execute to bring new PCs, peripherals, and applications to market.
For months, Roanne Sones (RSones) and Bernardo Caldas (BCaldas) on the Ecosystem team had been in deep technical discussions with partners about what would come next but had not yet committed to a timeframe. Any hints of a specific schedule (or business terms such as SKUs or pricing) would immediately make it back to the business side of the house and then to SteveB’s inbox. Even topics such as if there would be a 32-bit release (versus moving the ecosystem to 64-bit only) would have had broad implications for PC makers (and Intel). We had to walk a fine line between being excellent partners and creating an external news cycle that impacted partners as much as us. We knew that release dates were the most likely to be leaked, and the most damaging. Finishing a product with a giant, hovering countdown clock had dogged many past Windows releases. Yet, the partners needed time to prepare, and we were closer to finishing than starting. Windows 7 would soon be fully disclosed with the OEMs.
When asked in any forum, we said our goal was to release Windows 7 “within three years of Vista.” We were intentionally vague as to whether that meant release to manufacturing, available for enterprise download, first PCs in the United States, or some other market. Effectively, this gave us a buffer of about three months. And yes, that was sneaky, but it was the one concession I made to disclosure. I really hated that all people cared about was a date when a product was so much more than that. I understood, but still.
Then, in April 2008, BillG gave a speech, and inadvertently in one small part some believed he implied that Windows would finish in the following year. The press, who were there to hear about international finance at the Inter-American Development Bank meeting, ran with it and suggested Windows 7 would be ready much sooner than the previously planned three years from Vista. In fact, a year from April 2008 was sooner than our published schedule. That was not going to happen. Explaining that inaccuracy without stating the ship date was impossible.
It wasn’t just that Bill said the next Windows would arrive “sometime in the next year or so.” He also expressed his enthusiasm in what was certainly meant to be a throwaway line but came across to a tech industry desperate for any news when he said “I’m superenthused [sic] about what it [Windows 7] will do in lots of ways.”1
We were close enough to completing the milestone that it was time to plan on officially talking to the press, who would be happy to talk off the record while also helping us to reduce the amount they would need to absorb all at once when it was time for stories to be written. In parallel the Ecosystem team began working with OEMs and ODMs on the detailed schedule and on software drops.
Our first stop, as it had been with every product I worked on since Office 95, was Walt Mossberg at The Wall Street Journal. Our meetings had become somewhat of a routine, perhaps for both of us, though by no means easy or predictable—I usually prepared an overly large amount of data to demonstrate how people were using our products out in the wild and hoped to both inform him while pushing for some positive recognition. Sometimes, yes, I went a bit overboard on the data. Walt was staunchly independent and would never say if I was persuasive, but he was always thoughtful in his questions and comments.
By this time, Katherine Boehret was joining Walt when he visited. She started with The Wall Street Journal out of college. By 2011 she had her own column called This Digital Solution, and also worked with Walt and Kara Swisher on the All Things D Conference (ATD). Katherine and Walt together were a formidable audience. They were both deep into products with their own unique perspective and would put up with absolutely no spin or marketing. They were advocates for their readers and strident in their desire to see PCs live up to their ease-of-use potential and played no favorites.
This meeting, about a month after BillG’s speech, had a dual purpose. We wanted to at least try to diffuse some of what they had no doubt perceived (rightfully) as a mess with Vista without throwing Vista under the bus, while also setting the stage for Windows 7. If all went well, we might even secure time at All Things D that year for a quick Windows 7 demo at the end of an already scheduled BillG and SteveB joint interview.
It was stressful. It was Walt. And Windows 7 was not fully formed for reviewers yet. Joining for the meeting or parts of it would be Julie Larson-Green (JulieLar) for Windows, Dean Hachamovitch (DHach) representing Internet Explorer, and Chris Jones (ChrisJo) discussing Live Services.
Meeting in a conference room in building 99 with a half dozen demo laptops on the table, I started with our usual printouts of data, showing them an overview of Windows Vista in market. Walt’s earlier review of Vista called it “maddeningly slow even on new, well-configured computers.” Katherine’s writings had been a bit less harsh, but not by much. I had to at least try to change their minds, but neither Walt nor Katherine was impressed. I took the time to talk about the landscape of PCs being sold and what was going on with laptops and Netbooks. In reviewing the original Asus Eee PC, Mossberg concluded it was a “valiant effort, but it still has too many compromises to pry most travelers away from their larger laptops.”2 That led to a hot topic for all reviewers, but especially Walt who had praised the MacBook Air: When Windows would see a MacBook Air competitor? Walt, JulieLar, and I had discussed the MacBook Air at the Apple launch event months earlier.
My lack of an answer on behalf of PC makers was not satisfactory for them, or me. As described previously, the PC makers were much more focused on inexpensive devices like Netbooks and not eager to take on Apple or the premium PC market.
Browsers were much discussed in the late 2000s, though not the one from Microsoft. We didn’t know it at the time but in hindsight it would be fair to assume they had been or were soon to be briefed on the forthcoming Google Chrome browser that shipped in late 2008. Still, Walt and Katherine wanted to know about Internet Explorer and privacy, a hot industry topic among a few, but especially them. We were woefully behind Firefox on core browsing capability, but we had a fantastic story to share about privacy features that DHach and team had developed, including blocking “tracking cookies.” We showed them how mainstream sites, like The New York Times, were doing a poor job communicating to users how much information was being shared and with whom, but with only vague permission or even disclosure. We did not go as far as offering ad-blocking which many tech enthusiasts would have appreciated, but we did plan on releasing and showed a “Do Not Track” feature.
During development, a series of meetings with lobbyists from the advertising industry discussing the Internet Explorer privacy features had led to veiled threats about anticompetitive behavior by Microsoft against ad-supported Google. Such hints or even threats were common from anyone connected to the Washington or government communities. This was unrelated to the Consent Decree, though there were still a couple of years left on that agreement and the oversight meetings that I routinely attended. As a result, Internet Explorer 8’s privacy features that were well received in this briefing would ultimately be scaled back due to an enormously frustrating push from the senior ranks of Microsoft’s legal department to capitulate to the lobbying groups to avoid drawing attention of regulators and to spare our own nascent advertising business from having to comply with privacy requirements. Do Not Track was essentially shelved even before we started. Today, the capability is a core part of Apple’s platform and the Microsoft Edge browser.
Our primary goal for the meeting was to showcase Windows 7. For the first time, we offered up a full disclosure of our overall goals and schedule. We trusted Walt and Katherine as we had built a great working relationship with them over the years, but, more importantly, because of their unmatched professional integrity.