Microsoft is taking drivers for test drives

Brian Valentine recently played up his likeness to the late comedian John Belushi to creatively illustrate why this industry is making him so angry.

In a video spoof of the movie Animal House, Microsoft Corp.’s Windows division senior vice-president, recreated the infamous scene where Belushi’s character fills his mouth with mashed potatoes, then spits them out onto the disgusted observers. As an added gross-out factor, the mashed potatoes in Valentine’s version happened to be bright blue.

What was the message behind this display? “Don’t spit goo at your customers.” The video, shown at the recent Windows Hardware Exhibition and Convention (WinHEC) in Anaheim, Calif., went over well, if the audience’s reaction was any indication.

The “goo” Valentine alluded to was referring to substandard products that are on the market, all the products that crash, and all the hardware that’s incompatible with the software being released.

“Look, I’m mad,” Valentine said in his keynote. “I mean, the PC business has been a great business so far. We’ve done a lot of great things. We’ve moved forward in technology. But it’s just too hard. It just crashes too much,” he said.

“You can either go down one of two paths when you’re mad. You can get depressed, and you can sit around and go, ‘God, this is hard. This sucks. I don’t like it anymore. I’m mad, but I’m going to focus my energy on being depressed.’ (But) I tell [my team], ‘Look, that’s not the path we want to take.’ The path we want to take is, when we get mad, is we want to focus that energy onto moving in a positive direction.”

Looking back on the last few years, the PC has been pretty boring, he admitted.

“There’s been great innovation in a lot of places, but in reality, when a customer walks in the store to buy that PC, or they go on-line to buy that PC, it’s the same old boring thing that’s been there of a while. There’s no excitement.”

Windows XP will add the excitement that’s been missing, take away the “boringness factor” and do it from single code base, which will remove a lot of the old compatibility problems, he said.

“We’re going to have a single driver model. You write an app for one; it works on both. It just fixes that problem. So we’re fixing the foundation. So we got mad, and we’re finally fixing that. I wish we’d have done it a long time ago, but we didn’t. But we’re going to fix it with XP and fix it once and forever.”

Valentine appealed to the audience, largely made up of hardware experts, to help to make his vision a reality.

“We can’t do it with just having the Microsoft device drivers up there. We need every single driver we can get up there; we need every single applet we can get up there; we need every single application support we can get up there so that when we go up there to give that user the best experience possible in upgrading that machine and supporting the devices.”

Valentine said Microsoft has almost 600 people working on application and device compatibility, including testing of drivers.

“It’s all about device compatibility and application compatibility. So test those devices, test those applications, and really work with us to get stuff on Windows update, really work with us to get those schemes in place. And we can’t do it without your help.”

Dean McCarron, a principal at Mercury Research Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz., was surprised at the level of apologetics at the convention.

“And not only [that] but also some anger – some ‘Hey you guys, you’ve been putting out hardware that’s had really poor drivers and that’s part of the reason that we’re in the mess that we’re in’ kind of comments,” he said.

“Evidence suggests that if somebody does not ride the hardware vendors, and let me qualify this by saying that there are hardware vendors who do produce quality drivers all the time – that isn’t necessarily who this is targeted at. But without somebody looking over their shoulders, there is definitely a class of vendors who just put out the minimum functionality to get that hardware out and into the market,” McCarron said.

“And it tends to be very unreliable. And I think that results in very negative experiences. And I think that’s by and large what Microsoft is angry with. That really hasn’t changed,”

According to McCarron, Microsoft is probably saying, “the driver’s not going to be able to run unless you play their game. So it’s more enforcement. It’s not that these companies are not capable of producing reliable drivers, it’s that they simply don’t care to or it’s too expensive for them to do,” he said.

“So, if not having a quality driver prevents or lock them out of the market, then they will have a quality driver. “