Microsoft: This time, it’s different

As Microsoft Corp. announced the Windows 7 release candidate, it is hoping that by better engaging the community of software and hardware vendors that build for its operating system platform, the eventual general availability of Windows 7 will not be plagued by the compatibility issues seen with its predecessor.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant wants to ensure the Windows 7 end user reaps the full Windows experience by taking a development approach that is more transparent to third-party developers, said Mike Nash, corporate vice-president of Windows product management for Microsoft. The Windows 7 release candidate is available to MSDN and TechNet subscribers only, and to the general public on May 5.

“Windows isn’t just the software we ship in a nice box,” said Nash. “Windows is a product typically experienced on computers from OEMs with a bunch of hardware and software from third parties. We had to make sure that these people were engaged.”

Nash said there are more than 10,000 vendors participating in various community programs for compatibility testing of hardware and software, which is markedly different than before, and that “has been a very important differentiator for the Windows business.”

What differentiates Windows 7 development from that of Vista is the fact that there are fewer changes to contend with, and therefore fewer potential compatibility issues, compared with the slew of security-driven enhancements seen before. Nash said there are fewer drastic changes required this time around, thereby ensuring the investment made by third-parties with Vista “all accrues nicely with Windows 7.”

Making available a pre-release for developers in late 2008 and a feature-complete beta in January served to give the development community a clearer sense of the product, said Nash. In November, 95 per cent of vendors reported that 100 per cent of their devices worked on Windows 7, and feedback following the beta release showed 94 per cent vendor compatibility.

Microsoft has also realized that better documentation of development changes through sites like TechNet help drive transparency.

Nash said Microsoft wants developers to treat the beta the way they used to treat release candidates, and treat the release candidate the way they used to treat the final product. “We’ve had to earn the right to ask the ecosystem to do that … we have earned the right by having a very different approach to our planning process, being much more predictable and driving significantly less churn late in the game.”

Eric Sugar, manager of business solutions with Toronto-based ProServe IT, an IT consultancy that runs internal custom-developed applications on Windows 7 beta, agreed that Microsoft’s different approach this time around is making it easier for partners, and that the development community is taking advantage of that. “We even found that we were engaged earlier and more often as releases and changes came out to help keep us in the loop and to help make things smoother,” said Sugar.

The changes will benefit the final product release, said Sugar, in that it will not be a repeat of the Vista launch. “I believe we should see a lot less (compatibility issues). Partners should be working toward that goal of having things run on Windows 7 today, so when (general availability) happens, it’s ready,” he said.

Michael Cherry, research vice-president of operating systems with Kirkland, Wash.-based research firm Directions on Microsoft, said the development community has better transparency regarding a ship date this time, allowing them the confidence to start their compatibility testing earlier. “(Microsoft) had a lot of difficulty communicating when it would actually ship Vista,” said Cherry. “As a consequence, vendors had lost faith, so instead of doing a lot of work to time with a ship date that was a moving target, they waited until they had final code.”

With Windows 7, Cherry said the information Microsoft is sending out concerning ship dates is actually believable. “You can tell people a lot of things, but if they’re wrong it doesn’t help.”

Cherry fully expects users will have a smoother transition than they did with Vista, and that this “is a point where Microsoft does legitimately deserve some credit for thinking this through properly.”

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