096. Ultraseven (Launching Windows 7)
“A luxurious super huge burger with 7 113g beef patties in an American size bun with a diameter of 13cm!” —advertisement for the Windows 7 Whopper (translated from Japanese)
In the era of “boxed” software release to manufacturing was a super special moment. The software is done, and the bits permanently pressed onto a DVD disc. That disc, the golden master, is then shipped off physically to duplicators around the world and then combined with another artifact of the era, a box or in the case of Windows 7 a plastic anti-theft DVD contraption. While Windows 95, the excitement of computing and the newness of internet set a high-water mark for launch events, the completion and launch of Windows 7 was a major worldwide business event. The industry was looking for optimism as we emerged from the Global Financial Crisis and the ensuing slump in PC sales. Windows 7 was just the ticket and the launch would prove to be part of a massive uptick in PC sales or as some hoped a return to ongoing up and to the right curves. But could that really be the case?
The months after the PDC were extremely intense. We had set out to promise and deliver, but the success of the PDC had managed to inflate expectations. These were not false expectations—the use of the product was widespread and broadly satisfactory. That success is what raised expectations. PC makers, Wall Street, OEMs, and enterprise customers knew the product to deliver and were not just impatient.
We made a significant number of changes from M3 to beta. With our improved engineering system changes were made in a controlled though collaborative manner. Each change was discussed by many people and then the code change reviewed—no holes punched in the wall. With each passing day it was more difficult to make changes while we aimed for stability of the beta. The most important thing about shipping a beta is not that it is perfect but that it ships in a known state. If something isn’t right that’s okay, as long it’s known. In the case of Windows 7, we knew work and bugs remained but were highly confident that millions of people would try out the beta and have a great experience.
That methodical crawl to beta went on for weeks, each day making fewer changes and calmly making it to sign-off. Then it was time to ship the beta.
On January 8, 2009, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, SteveB announced the availability of Windows 7 Beta. The venue and the announcement from the CEO made this a significant worldwide event. It was covered on CNN, BBC, and more. That was exciting and even felt a bit like old times for a moment.
I watched from back in the green room because we were getting ready to turn on the web site for download and had no idea what to expect. While the internet was old news, downloading a gigabyte DVD image was hardly routine, especially from home and not something the internet was yet equipped to handle reliably.
To have some sense of control, we set a limit of 2.5 million downloads. Back then, before everyone had gigabit internet at home, a massive gigabyte download was something that would stress out the internet. As the keynote was going on we watched downloads begin. They quickly reached our limit while the keynote continued. A few calls to Redmond and we removed the throttle and began to rewrite our press releases with ever-increasing numbers. We extended the beta downloads through the end of January and had many more millions of installs than downloads as the download made it to all sorts of alternate and backup sites. We also learned a lesson in distributed computing that day.
For the beta we issued unique product registration keys which became the scarce resource. We soon removed the limits on activating those keys as well. While the download site was structured to choose 32- or 64-bit along with locale to then generate a key, many figured out the URL that went directly to the 2.5GB download and passed that along. We just didn’t want to be overwhelmed with Watson and SQM data so capped the release at 2.5 million. That was silly but at least we received an indication of the excitement. There was a lot!
Every day we tracked bugs with Watson and observed usage with SQM. Hardware vendors were providing updated device drivers that were anxiously downloaded by millions of testers, many seeing new drivers arrive automatically by Windows Update. More new PCs would arrive to be qualified. More legacy hardware would be retested. More of the over 100,000 apps in the wild would be checked for compatibility. More enterprise customers would tell us that they were anxious to deploy Windows 7.
Many reviewers chose to review the Beta as though it was final or at least something regular people might care about. It would be easy to gloss over this but for me it was an important part of promise and deliver. It had been a very long time, perhaps never, when a first beta for Windows was considered broadly usable and also had customers asking if it was okay to deploy even more broadly. Promise and deliver.
David Pogue, hardly a fan of Windows, practically filled an entire page of The New York Times with his review “Hate Vista? You May Like Microsoft’s Fix” where he concluded “For decades, Microsoft's primary strategy has been to put out something mediocre, and then refine, refine, refine, no matter how long and no matter what it costs, until it succeeds. That's what's exciting about the prospect of Windows 7. It's Windows Vista - with a whole heck of a lot of refinement.”1 Microsoft was back to making sure it got products right.
In The Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg said in another front page of the business section review “Even in beta form, with some features incomplete or imperfect, Windows 7 is, in my view, much better than Vista, whose sluggishness, annoying nag screens, and incompatibilities have caused many users to shun it. It's also a serious competitor, in features and ease of use, for Apple's current Leopard operating system.”2 He also posted a video review as part of some of his more recent work creating video reviews.3
All we needed to do was finish.
By July 13, 2009, build 7600 was pronounced final and signed off on by GrantG and DMuir, the test leaders for WEX and COSD.
Windows 7 was ready for manufacturing.
July 9, 2009 was also my 20th anniversary at Microsoft and the team help me to celebrate by dressing like me—jeans, v-neck sweater, t-shirt. At least I was predictable.
Shortly thereafter at a sales kickoff in Atlanta, the annual MGX, we surprised the global field sales force and created a media moment when SteveB, KevinT (COO), and I held up a “golden master” DVD (a gold DVD), symbolically signing it as we announced that Redmond had signed off on the Windows 7 RTM build. It was a release that 10,000 people worldwide had contributed to and would likely end up on over 1 billion PCs. It was complete with another photo of me looking uncomfortable celebrating with SteveB on stage at the sales meeting. The sales meeting was always a country-mouse/city-mouse moment for me.
Just as soon as that excitement was over, Microsoft announced what turned out to be the worst earnings in corporate history with a 17% drop in quarterly revenue in July 2009 the end of the fiscal year.4 The tough part was we knew this was coming while we were on stage, which made our celebration much less about the past and more about hope for the future. While many would blame the economy or Vista and some would even cite the recently announced Google Chrome OS (the predecessor to the Chromebook), the truth was much more secular in nature. PC makers were struggling on the bottom line as the 40 million netbooks as exciting as they were lacked profit. The astronomical rise in netbook unit sales discussed in the previous chapter led many to assume a bullish future. In fact, netbooks masked a secular decline in PC sales. We would know more as the year progressed as new PCs were sold with Windows 7 during holiday season 2009.
After the celebration, the team collectively exhaled. It was August and time for vacations, but we didn’t have a lot of time to waste. Come September, we had to get the team fully engaged to plan what was coming next or it would be a massive effort to regain momentum.
Our team of administrative assistants outdid themselves with a wonderful ship party held on the activity fields in Redmond. In contrast to other Windows events, I would say this one was less eventful and even comparatively subdued, but still enormously fun for the team. We had custom cakes and cupcakes, tons of food, family-friendly games, craft beers contained to a two-drink limit within an enclosed area, and even Seattle hometown favorite The Presidents (of the United States) as the special musical guest. They took their popular song “Cleveland Rocks” and wrote the lyrics as “Microsoft Rocks.” I still have a bootleg recording of that.
The competitive issues we were facing weren’t going away. The organization was about to change and clarify responsibility for dealing with those.
Launching Windows 7
We had a fantastic foundation to build upon and all we needed to do was deliver an odd-even result—meaning a good release after the Vista release—and each of our core constituencies would breathe a sigh of relief. Looking outward, however, it was obvious the world was a very different place than when we started Windows 7. It was not clear any of those constituencies or even our own team were prepared.
There was still a product to officially launch, but not before some realignment at the top of the organization.
Bill Veghte (BillV), who had started at Microsoft right out of college and had overseen Windows 7 marketing through to launch planning, decided after two decades with the company that he wanted an opportunity to run a business end-to-end and announced his intention to depart Microsoft. After a transition he would join Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard. With that, SteveB wanted to put all of Windows under one leader and asked me to do that. He really wanted to elevate the job title which I pushed back on because of the way Microsoft was structured (and remains so) we did not really have what most consider true ownership of a business. Nevertheless, that was the origin of the job title of divisional president.
One of my first tasks was to hire a marketing leader to take over from BillV, one who would best represent the collaborative culture we aimed to create. I wanted to bring finance and marketing together under one leader because the Windows business uses billions of dollars in pricing actions to fund marketing through OEMs. Tami Reller (TReller) had been the finance leader for the Windows business, reporting to the corporate CFO. When she joined Microsoft 10 years earlier following the Great Plains acquisition where she had been leading marketing. I got to know her then as the acquisition fell under my then manager, Jeff Raikes (JeffR). She was the perfect combination of marketing and finance leadership for a business where those went hand in hand and brought a great deal to our management team.
Microsoft wanted (needed) a big launch for Windows 7 and so did the industry. As had become a tradition for me, I wanted to spend the launch in Asia while my peers led the US event. My connection to my Microsoft family in Japan, China, and Korea ran deep and the business for Microsoft in those countries was huge. I couldn’t be in all places at once, so I chose to attend the launch in Japan. No one loves a retail launch more than Japan.
I arrived two days before the October 22, 2009 launch. I never worked harder at a launch event. From first thing in the morning (easy because of the time change) until well past midnight (well supported now with Modafinil) because of excitement at retail stores, we did press visits, interviews, broadcasts, met with customers, and more. We’d shuttle from event to event in a Japanese microvan—all of us in our blue suits and ties with a stack of name cards.
The above are two YouTube videos from Japanese Windows fans who recorded Akihabara Electric City the night of the launch as well as the Ultraseven appearance.
For years, even way back when I worked for BillG, I had been going to Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara (and Shinjuku) to see what Japanese consumers were buying and to buy assorted USB and power cables that are exactly the length I need. The size of the Yodobashi flagship is unimaginable. The evening before the event we got an incredibly cool behind-the-scenes tour of the store, getting a look at the entire operation at night as they prepared the signage that would blanket the store for our event there the next day, such as the big decals that covered the walls of the 5-story escalator. As someone who grew up in the shadow of Disney World, the underground tour of Yodobashi was much like the underground of Disney, and about the same number of people visit each year I was told.
The team put on an outdoor event at the front of the store the evening of the launch with all sorts of famous-in-Japan anime/cosplay actors and tech celebrities. And when the first copy was sold that evening, we did a press event right there at the front of the store. All along the main street of the Akihabara Electric Town, Chuo Dori, there were events in front of the many stores selling PCs and software.
Microsoft Japan, MSKK, had come up with a crazy promotional partnership with Burger King. The chain created a seven-layer Whopper to celebrate Windows 7. It was five inches tall (13cm) with seven patties totaling 1¾ pounds (791g) of beef. It was unfathomable, even for a no-carb, protein person like me. The first 30 customers got to buy the burger for ¥777, or about $9 at the time. The launch team and I snuck over to the Burger King around the corner from Yodobashi and ordered the monster burger. None of us could eat it elegantly or even try to finish it, but we got some hilarious team photos of the attempt and general celebration.
At a hotel ballroom, we held the main launch event for the press, featuring all the new PCs from Japan PC makers. The event featured an Ultraman theme. Why? I knew about the movies but was not a huge follower. What I learned was that Ultraseven was the third installment of Ultraman from the late 1960s. It was still wildly popular in some circles in Japan. The launch had a cast of people doing choreographed battle scenes in Ultraseven and Ultraman outfits. It was something to see. I filed this away for another Lost In Translation memory.
MSKK hosted a both a casual user group meeting and a formal business launch as well. At the user group meeting we did demos and gave away a bags of Windows 7 logo gear among a series of demo stations at a cool Akihabara exhibition space down the street from Burger King. I wore a super cool Windows 7 windbreaker which I still have.
The business launch was a formal ceremony highlighting the broad support of both hardware and software for the launch. Joining Microsoft was the head of Dell Computer Japan. Together with a group of MSKK employees and partners we participated in the traditional celebration kagami-biraki or cracking open a rice barrel with big wooden mallets.
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing many product launches in Asia, but this time, for Windows 7, it was next level. MSKK is a gem of Microsoft. When I am lucky enough to be in Tokyo, even years and years later, walking around Akihabara I have the warmest and most vivid memories of the launch and my friends from MSKK. And sometimes my stomach hurts a bit thinking about the Burger King, which recently closed just before the pandemic. The news coverage of the event in Tokyo which was amplified across the important Asian markets was wonderful.
Our confidence was high heading into reviews, which broke with availability of the product and new PCs in retail stores—we had plenty of positive reviewer experiences and no deep concerns. That’s what came from being not just in beta but running as the primary OS on reviewers’ and enthusiasts’ PCs for months. We risked a reviewer becoming somewhat bored or even cynical with the release simply because there was little new from the beta and no product drama to speak of. Hundreds of positive stories broke across print and TV. Local reporters did a lot of product reviews and buyers’ guides at that time. Waggener Edstrom worked tirelessly in the United States to feed them information and support.
Walt Mossberg’s review evoked a positive tone that started in January with the beta release. For his RTM review he said, “Bottom line: Windows 7 is a very good, versatile operating system that should help Microsoft bury the memory of Vista and make PC users happy.” The headline read, “A Windows to Help You Forget: Microsoft's New Operating System Is Good Enough to Erase Bad Memory of Vista.”5 There was little more we could ask for in a review.
Ed Baig of USA Today and one of the most widely read reviewers made it clear how positive he was on the product when he said “What you'll notice is that Windows 7 is snappier than its predecessor, more polished, and simpler to navigate. Screens are less cluttered. It has better search. Windows 7 rarely nags.…It sure seems more reliable so far.”6
Windows 7 was the first major release of Windows not to double the requirements for memory and disk space. While the box maintained the same requirements (also a first) in practice the reduction in memory usage and focus on task manager paid off handsomely. As much as we were proud of the business success, the engineering success of Windows 7 was among the most significant in company history and the reviews reflected this improvement in core software engineering competency. JonDe brought his engineering excellence to all of Windows.
Major PC makers used the time from sign-off on the build to the October launch event to prepare the first Windows 7–ready PCs and get them into stores for holiday sales, including Black Friday in the United States.
Industry analyst firm Gartner declared the “recovery of the PC market on a global level,” with preliminary numbers showing a 22.1 percent increase over the previous year. Their quarterly analysis was effusive relative to their own reports just months earlier that were doom and gloom. More than 85 million PCs were sold in the fourth quarter of 2009, up more than 10 million units from 2008. This even though we were in the midst of a global recession. One year earlier, the top line was that PC sales had crashed. By the end of the first quarter, Gartner would upward revise their forecasts for 2010 to almost 370 million units, growing nearly 20%. The primary reason was that mobile computing, including netbooks, was on fire. Gartner concluded “It was the strongest quarter-on-quarter growth rate the worldwide PC market has experienced in the last seven years.”7
It would be incorrect to assume cause and effect relative to Windows 7. There existed pent-up demand for new PCs to replace aging ones. Windows Vista had caused many, both at home and at work, to hold off buying new PCs, and the recession further slowed those decisions. Windows 7 brought many people back into the market. The shift to mobility was helping PC units, but the low cost of netbooks hurt the profits of the major PC makers.
The competitive forces were real. Apple was doing very well in the US (and Japan) and finished the year selling 24% more units year over year. The strength in consumer sales was the headline supported by the so-called consumerization of IT, where consumers were buying their own preferred PCs to do work rather than rely on stodgy corporate PCs that were slower, heavier, and burdened with IT software.
It felt, at least to me, that I’d been holding my breath for more than three years.
I walked through Meiji Garden and Shrine early the morning of my flight home, a travel day tradition and one of my favorite places on earth. The world’s economy was still in shambles from the Global Financial Crisis. The PC sales everyone was excited by were obviously juiced by the start of an economic recovery and by netbooks. These were not going to last. When it came to netbooks, the major OEMs were anxious to exit the market and return to their view of normal. The problem was, as it became clear, netbooks were additive to a shrinking market. Consumers wanted portability. They were willing to try netbooks, but the product could not meet expectations.
When NPR reviewed Windows 7 in a very positive review, even the introduction espoused the end of the operating system, saying:
We are in the modern world now and, while Windows continues to be the default OS, everyone is talking about Mac OS X, Linux and the second coming of, wait, no, just the much-anticipated arrival of Google's Chrome OS.
The future is the Web, not the OS, and everyone knows it.8
As the Narita Airport customs officer stamped my passport and I walked through the turnstile, I could finally exhale. I think my stomach still hurt from the attempt at the seven-layer Whopper. Everyone else was heading back from the New York launch events and, other than the coverage I read, I don’t remember if we even took the time to share stories.
I had the same feeling I had when Office 2007 finished. As happy and proud as I was, it felt like the end of an era. With the huge shift happening in PC sales, PC makers, the internet and cloud, mobile phones, there was no denying we were in another era. When I looked at Windows 7, I did not have a view of “look what more we could do” as much as “we’ve done all we can do.”
What I do remember more than anything was talking to members of the team in the hallways, at meetings, remote offices, or over email throughout the course of the release. No matter what was going on and how difficult things got, I will always cherish all the people who shared their feelings about doing some of the best work of their careers—thoughts I still hear even as I write this. It was incredibly rewarding to hear. That wasn’t about me, but about the system and the plans put in place by the team of leaders we assembled. The Windows team was a new team. It was so ready to take on new challenges.
With RTM everyone on the team received their ceremonial copy of Windows 7. It is nice to have something to put on a shelf reminding each of us of the project and what we accomplished. For many, the next stop is the Microsoft Store to get upgrade copies for friends and family—another Microsoft holiday tradition.
The growth in mobility and demand for quality played right into Apple’s strengths, though not at first glance. The market continued to pressure Apple on low prices and did not see the weakness we did when it came to netbooks. On the heels of the Windows 7 launch, Apple released several new Get a Mac commercials. Among them was the segment “Promises” which reiterated all the times at new releases of Windows when Microsoft claimed the new release would not have all the problems of the old release. This one wasn’t accurate, but that didn’t matter.
In fact, Steve Jobs and Apple had a product in mind even more disruptive to the PC than the iPhone or MacBook Air…while we were just starting the next Windows release.
Pogue, David, “Hate Vista? You May Like the Fix”, The New York Times, January 22, 2009
“Even in Test Form, Windows 7 Leaves Vista in the Dust” Mossberg, Walter S. Wall Street Journal, 22 Jan 2009
“Microsoft Can't Evade Downturn's Tight Grip” Vance, Ashlee, New York Times, 24 July 2009
“A Windows to Help You Forget”, Mossberg, Walt, Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2009
USA Today, Baig, Ed, October 16, 2009
Gartner press release, “Gartner Says Worldwide PC Shipments in Fourth Quarter of 2009 Posted Strongest Growth Rate in Seven Years”, January 13, 2010
Windows 7: Microsoft's Lucky Number?, October 22, 2009, by Wright Bryan, https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2009/10/microsoft_upgrades_with_window.html