New York Times on Vista Development

Steve Lohr and John Markoff sensibly ask why Microsoft, with nearly infinite resources, has had such a hard time putting Longhorn/Vista on the shelves. The authors do a fairly good job of making sense of the situation, but ultimately blame the supernatural forces of backwards compatibility:

The problem, it seems, is largely that Microsoft's past success and its bundling strategy have become a weakness.

[...] the company strains to make sure software and hardware that ran on previous versions of Windows will also work on the new one compatibility, in computing terms. As a result, each new version of Windows carries the baggage of its past.

"Windows is now so big and onerous because of the size of its code base, the size of its ecosystem and its insistence on compatibility with the legacy hardware and software, that it just slows everything down," observed David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. "That's why a company like Apple has such an easier time of innovation."

Whoa there.

Windows is big and complex, and compatibility is difficult, but is backwards compatibility really the reason that Vista has been delayed? There are plenty of software projects that fail which have no serious concerns about backwards compatibility.

Credit where credit is due. Apple certainly has it easier (if by easier, you mean more responsibility and design work) because it engineers its own hardware, but is this the only reason Apple is successful at what it does?

The implication here is that this is Microsoft. The big M. The great conquerer of technological challenges. If it's difficult for them, surely it would be impossible for anyone else. Or is there something to be said for mentality, culture and development tools?

This last one is interesting. Frameworks, languages and design patterns fall way outside the scope of the New York Times, but they might be the heart of the issue. Some would say that all languages and libraries are more or less the same, but Apple's software suite and Mac OS X's third party software tells a different story. Development tools and practices are often the difference.

There are obviously talented people working at Microsoft because writing an operating system is hard. I don't think it's a stretch to acknowledge that Apple has more than good circumstances in its utility belt, though.
Design Element
New York Times on Vista Development
Posted Mar 27, 2006 — 4 comments below


Michael Strck — Mar 27, 06 985

The "backwards-compatibility" argument is very old and has always been bullshit. Making sacrifices in the design of an operating system just so that every crappy POS software runs on any POS legacy hardware is not a good idea. Why didn't they just create a virtual machine that runs all that crap but is completely and utterly shut off from interacting with any other parts of the system? How hard can that be? For Christ's sake, there are Open Source products that enable me to securely and stably run Monkey Island on my G4 PowerBook.

Apple, with a few percent of MSFTs resources, more or less pulled that off with the Classic environment while actually innovating on every front AND making their OS faster and more stable with every released iteration.

And now, they are doing the same in an even more impressive way. Which company just moved their entire platform to a new processor architecture so freaking seamlessly that 90% of its computing populace would not even have noticed it if it hadn't been all over the press? Oh, right, it's Apple, the company which doesn't have to worry about backwards compatibilty so much.

Why? Because they are smarter, very obviously. But also , they made some pragmatic decisions that work very well.

Mac OS X is not a completely rewritten, brand-new insight into OS development, it's built on decades-old engineering. But it's also here, now, and works flawlessly. At the same time, it makes the geniuses that built its foundation feel right at home, as well as the younger open source crowd and small, innovative software developers.

Spotlight, to give just another example, is not WinFS -- but it's not a pipedream, either, and does 90% of the things 99% of all users would ever do with WinFS.

I guess what I want to say is that I personally think that the problems MS has are home-grown. Incompetent management and wrong priorities.

Chris — Mar 27, 06 988

Yup. In retrospect, taking the Microsoft approach to backward compatibility was also a big part of the problem with Copland.

sjk — Mar 27, 06 990

Interesting how Microsoft seems more concerned about (or is incapable of) jettisoning excessive Windows baggage (or sufficiently virtualizing it, as Michael mentioned) moving forward with Vista than Apple was in shedding Classic support with the Intel migration. I'd rather be Apple taking criticism for making choices like this than Microsoft for theirs.

Ashley M. Aitken — Mar 30, 06 996

Again, by "slows everything down" I believe the article means "everything to do with the development /release / upgrade process, not Windows itself.



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