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September 25, 2006

Trying to Grok Windows Live

At the Company Meeting last week, Ray Ozzie stood up and gave a very nice, very inspiring speech about how we have to shift the company to Live (Windows Live, Office Live, etc). He spoke without slides or notes and it's obviously something he cares a lot about and has thought a lot about. I'm entirely convinced that he has a great vision of the future in his mind.

The only problem is, I really don't know what he is talking about.

I'm fully prepared to believe it's because I'm too dense to understand. But when he talks about "betting the company on Windows Live", what does that mean? How does Windows become a service? I understand that there are things we need to do in order to make the Internet a platform; back in 2000 I wrote that I thought that's what .Net was. But I don't see how this involves changing Windows in some fundamental way.

As it happens, Wired had an article this month called "Rebuilding Microsoft", which is about precisely this: Microsoft's "post-desktop" plans. So I figured the article would clear things up for me.

Or not. The article only offers hints of Ozzie's vision, and vacillates alarmingly between portents of doom if Microsoft blows this paradigm shift, and reminders that the company is still hugely successful (implying, perhaps, that the writer occasionally emerged from his Ozzie-induced thrall to wonder about the same kinds of things I am).

Specifics? The article mentions "a world where desktop applications would eventually work in concert with high-speed apps delivered over the Internet", but since there is plenty of this today and it mostly runs on Windows, I don't see what needs to change. Then it says, "In other words, instead of spending years working on giant, deeply integrated software packages...Microsoft needs to think more like Google...designing and releasing software faster and in smaller interchangeable pieces and then letting online user feedback guide improvements." OK, sure Vista took too long, but are they really claiming large customers would prefer Windows to emerge in dribs and drabs (if that even made technical sense), or have a single release every few years (actually later in the article it agrees that the current system makes more sense). This example doesn't help much (quoting Ozzie): "Wouldn't it be great if you could hit F5 when you finished preparing a presentation and have your PC automatically upload the file to a Web address?" Yes, that would be kind of cool...so why not talk to the Office team, they can probably scrounge up an intern to implement that.

The article later explains "The vision is simple: enable users to have access to their data and applications wherever they are and regardless of what device they're using". OK, this possibly hints that the point of Windows Live is to have an OS for the desktop and also for the cellphone and TV -- except Microsoft already has that, don't we? And the article goes on talking about ad-supported software, subscription software, data stored in the cloud, blah blah blah, but it's all application stuff. Sure, as I said, Microsoft needs to make a platform for Internet development, but that doesn't fundamentally change how Windows should work, any more than the arrival of the Internet did. You want big server farms? Fine, set them up and on them you'll run...Windows, I assume. You want an Installable File System for your CloudFS? Great, but what do the other 69,990 people work on? Have the server running per-client virtual machines, remoted to a browser-based Terminal Services client--doesn't that work right now (actually I don't know if it does, but it seems like it should)? Unless we're talking about truly zany, impossible-to-debug ideas like spreading the threads of a process across multiple machines (hardly seems worth it when the future is many-multi-core and people are quaking about getting it right on one box).

The Wired article is also interesting from a navel-gazing perspective because it's full of statements like the following:

  • "Half the staff - those who joined the ranks in the early '90s - are worth millions of dollars from stock options."
  • "Imagine being an airline mechanic. You're accustomed to waiting for planes to roll into the hangar to be fixed. One day, someone tells you that from now on, you're going to have to maintain the planes while they're in the air. That's what Microsoft is facing."
  • "In May, Microsoft changed its review process...It used to be that you were graded on a curve within your group; For every top performer there had to be a subpar one."
  • "Now each employee is graded on individual goals...These goals are reset as often as every month to encourage engineers to ship lots of little software modules and revise them online rather than spend an entire year on one huge release."
  • "The company has also...tripled the number of stock options an employee can receive as an annual bonus."
  • "In the Office division, for example, compensation is now directly linked to title so employees know roughly where every colleague stands in the ecosystem."
  • "Gtaes himself is trying to be more open. This year he made available to the whole company electronic copies of the papers he takes on his annual Thnk Week vacation. In the past, what Gates perused during his celebrated week of rumination was a closely held secret."
These are all sort of half-true--they have a fact embedded in them, but then they leap off on a flight of fancy in connecting Point A with Point B. The results should induce raised eyebrows in any Microsoft employee. No, I'm not going to explain which half of each sentence is correct; but stuff like this makes me realize that I should approach things I read about other companies with much more skepticism than I do.

Presumably, or maybe I should say hopefully, this will all become clear, but for now I remained confused in Redmond.

Posted by AdamBa at September 25, 2006 09:22 PM

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This whole business about accessing files from anywhere will hit a shoal on the issue of data security. Already in our simple home network, I can move files using machine A from A to B and vice versa, but not using machine B. They both use Win-XP, bought from and installed by the same vendor and he cannot explain what is going on. Meantime, machine C, running under Win2000 cannot even see machine B, although it can see A. These are all behind a firewall. Meantime, I good friend took his computer up to his summer cabin and used it to dial up and when he brought it back, it could no longer connect to his network.

And now they expect us to believe that we are going to be able to get our stuff from anywhere to anywhere? Anyone want to buy a very nice bridge?

Posted by: Marble Arch at September 26, 2006 08:44 AM

Yeah, I totally agree with you on this one. Part of me chuckles at the "cloud" since isn't this just Hailstorm warmed over with some new flair? And BillG hated Hailstorm. I worry about the liability of storing half the stuff we say we're going to. I do love the features though of portable user everything in the cloud...now could I get a portable OS so that I can take all my system settings with me as well? This would play huge in 3rd world countries.

But I too am confused by what all this is. I see people like Rajesh Jha get promoted and really hyped for the Office Live stuff, but I have yet to find a useful service that really lends itself to an "office". It all seems to just point to more and more clicks so that we can get more revenue from ads. I don't get it either...can't you tell from my rambling? :-)

Posted by: What's up with that? at September 27, 2006 09:27 AM

This "the web will become everything, everything will become the web" is another bubble fad.  There are applications that are great on the web, like sharing photos and browsing email and such, but the web market will eventually plateau and become simply another market with its own kinds of apps, not the whole enchilada.  There's never going to be a Web 2.0 Photoshop.  This idea of hosting every app in existence out there on a decentralized web is ignoring the technical disadvantages and risks of requiring a constant, reliable, fast web connection at all times, the web's poor status as a true application delivery platform, and the fact that many things deserve to be centralized on a local machine to even be a plausible software experience to begin with.  Companies have spent decades developing mature application APIs for creating amazing software, and now we're going to toss it aside in favor of inferior JavaScript frameworks and IFRAMEs?

This another bubble, just like calling everything "Web 2.0"  because it misspells its logo and uses some JavaScript for fast input validation.  The idea that Ozzie seems so focused on throwing everything up onto the web is a little alarming to me, and that's not backwards-thinking going on, it's just common sense.  I'm in my early 20s, I'm hip on Vista, Linux, and OS X, and I know what I want as a consumer.  I don't want to go to a web site to use a word processor, and I don't want it "always running" on some server farm 10 states away.  I want it on my hard drive.  Give me a Steam-like online software service, that I'll consider...but I want the app on MY computer.

I'm sure Apple just loves that Microsoft is chasing after Google into the wonderful world of WebOS, shifting focus to something else and creating a lovely little  vacuum in the market for Apple to swoop in with their seamless appliance PCs, and then what will it matter that Excel is on the web?  Consumers will have a pretty, local, Cocoa-developed version pre-installed on their Docks...

Posted by: Preston at September 28, 2006 10:20 PM

Hm, I think there's a lot more here than you are realizing. For instance, let's say I'm an app dev who wants to write a rich Windows CE application that pulls data from the users cloud stored data files (with their permissions of course) and then combines it with data from another service and then finally takes some action on a third - for instance "Find a hotel in the city I'm going to be in Friday and book it for me." - The app needs to pull my friday location from some cloud service that stores my Outlook data, then search for a hotel in that city, maybe even finding a review or two of it for me from another site, and then finally needs to book the hotel room - using credit card information that I have stored in my secure wallet.

Where's the application development platform that let's me do this? Right now I have to use some pretty complex and disparate programming techniques to make this happen. Where's the Win32 programming model for this kind of distributed application model (client/server/service)? Where's the "save as" dialog that I can easily plug into my solution? Where's the MFC for web 2.0? Even better, couldn't we make it possible for the developer to write this solution once and have it work on a Windows PC, a smart phone or maybe even an Xbox?

If we can find a way to pull all of these kinds of service and client offerings together into a consistent application development model that helps also provide a consistent, secure and cool user experience across our various OS's, that will be one heck of a cool new platform for the company.

Posted by: What's not to understand? at September 29, 2006 12:03 PM

I totally agree we need to make the "Web 2.0" (or whatever you call it) into a platform, and make it as easy to use, and cross-platform if possible. I see the need to make a Live API and all that.

What I don't see is how this affects Windows itself. So the title of this post was a bit confusing, when I talk about not getting "Windows Live" I'm not talking about the rebranded MSN web services stuff; I mean I don't get what it means to Live-ify Windows itself. MFC didn't change Windows internally, and even a more integrated programming solution should only change it slightly. I can see needing some small changes but I don't see how we have to "bet Windows on Live".

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at September 29, 2006 09:07 PM

Well, I found that article to be expressing doomsday without knowing anything about an operating system. I guess some part of the Live movement is identity. Enable the Windows OS credentials to seamlessly log you in the cloud, back up files, retrieve email, traffic information, synchronize data/events....Maybe almost treat the desktop data as a cache with the persistent store being in the cloud. The desktop apps would exist to process data, but, you would be able to do this anywhere, in any desktop/device. Once, such a picture comes in, collaboration would be very easy. Sharing out data/files or any other material would not require email or manual copying, but a few permissions.

But I agree that I donot see any dramatic changes in the Windows OS to enable any of the above.

Posted by: R at September 30, 2006 02:52 AM

Number 4 said...

""Find a hotel in the city I'm going to be in Friday and book it for me." - The app needs to pull my friday location from some cloud service that stores my Outlook data..."

How about...

Find a hotel in the city I'm going to be in Friday and book it for me. The app needs to pull my Friday location from the USB drive I have plugged into the "dumb" PC, which USB drive holds my license to the Windows OS WITH all my settings AND my wallet info. F--K the cloud, give me my data so that I can hold it AND give me my OS on a USB drive so that I don't even have to carry a computer with me, just boot from my USB. The scenario above is over rated for what Windows Live is pushing (if we can figure out what that is)

Posted by: Still not getting it... at October 1, 2006 10:53 PM

Regarding what does this mean for Windows the existing OS? Not all that much really - Calling it "Windows Live" is mostly about branding and making it clear that this is our new shiny developer platform that we want to get people excited about - the changes to the Windows OS that this causes will not be all the extensive - We will probably need a new application development model - neither Win32 or .NET really work for this world - one where it's as easy to run a rich internet connected application as it is to go to a web page with a browser today and we will need to make Windows much more effective at running effectively/efficiently in giant data centers with tons of commodity hardware that fails unpredictably - But those are general goodness that we would want to do anyway even without Windows Live.

Posted by: whatsnottounderstand at October 3, 2006 05:17 PM

"Have the server running per-client virtual machines, remoted to a browser-based Terminal Services client--doesn't that work right now (actually I don't know if it does, but it seems like it should)?"

Isn't that how the Microsoft Virtual Labs work?

Posted by: Nick at October 6, 2006 05:46 AM

And what exactly does one do when ones connection goes down? And how does my Terminal Services based client help me access webservcies from around the web? I don't think that approach passes the sniff test.

Posted by: Whatsnottounderstand at October 11, 2006 04:22 PM