It’s been quite a while since Microsoft released a new operating system. Windows XP was the last consumer OS to ship and that was 4 years ago. By the time Vista ships, it will have been 5 years. There are a lot of consequences of such a long release cycle but the one I want to speak about is perspective. Rather, the lack of perspective. Most people today watching Vista come along have no perspective about what a new OS is like before it ships. When XP was being built, the world was less connected. There were no blogs. There were far fewer web sites dedicated to rumors and leaks. The consequence of this is that most people didn’t see what the OS really looked like until it launched. Those that did tended to read about it in magazines with long lead times and carefully scripted presentations. Today, the public gets to see a much more raw version of the development process. Another consequence is that even here inside Microsoft, many fewer people have shipped an OS. Why does this matter? I have seen a lot of people reacting to early releases of Vista in a negative light. It is too slow or it doesn’t look different enough or it is buggy. There are also a lot of positive reactions but those are not the aim of my essay.
People who react negatively don’t realize that this is always what an OS looks like before it ships. Think of building a new OS a lot like cleaning a messy room. The first thing that always happens (at least when I clean a room) is that it gets even messier. I start organizing things by taking them out of their places and spreading them out. Before I know it, every surface including the bed and the floors has piles of stuff on it. If I stopped at this point, the room would be worse than it started. After sorting everything into piles, I can then put it away neatly and more organized than before. The result is a much cleaner room. An OS is similar. The first thing you do is start removing old, working parts and replacing them with new parts. These new parts start off less powerful and less stable than the parts they are replacing and only over time become more powerful. A good example of this is in the world of audio. The team I work on helped to produce the new audio stack in Windows. For beta 1 the stack was present but didn’t do much the old stack didn’t do. If we did our jobs right, all that work would never be noticed. If we screwed up, things that worked before wouldn’t work now. For Beta 2 we are able to add all sorts of cool new features on top like per-app audio.
The point here is the early releases of the operating system (or any application going through a major overhaul) is going to look worse before it looks better. Take heart those of you watching the process unfold. Vista will be an exciting OS with lots of cool new features. I’ve seen some of the recent Beta 2 builds and it is looking much more impressive. I can’t say anything about it but if you watch places like Channel 9, you’ll probably see some of it soon. You can also see some of it in the PDC demos which were given about a month ago.