Vista slips, employee grumbles go public

In the software industry, it’s predictable that major releases slip. The more features that get added in, the more ambitious the release, the higher the testing burden, the greater the risk of incompatibility with other products, the more complicated the interaction matrix between features, the bigger the regression risk. More risk = more uncertain schedule.

So the announcement that Longhorn Vista, which was at one time to have shipped last year, is slipping broad consumer availability into 2007 is unsurprising. (The discrepancy between the November delivery date for businesses and January availability for consumers has to do with delivery models. Businesses can get upgrade versions under Software Assurance; the assumption is that consumers will be waiting for new PCs to come pre-loaded with Vista through the channel, which involves a manufacturing delay. I assume that’s the difference, anyway, and not that there are actual code differences between the two versions.)

What is a little more interesting is the level of public griping that is coming from Microsoft bloggers like Mini-Microsoft, who is questioning the apparent lack of accountability in senior management (“Fire the leadership now!”). What is astounding is the level of bitterness and dissatisfaction expressed by various anonymous Microsoft employees in the comment thread. One says that accountability will be seen “this August when reviews are handed out to junior employees.” Another complains about problems on the Vista application compatibility test team: “Cut the number of testers (several times) from approx 50 to now much less than a dozen” and notes that application compatibility measures are hovering at “< 40 percent.”

This is the downside of blogging, for Microsoft the public agency: all the dirty laundry gets exposed, all the internal secrets get aired. Of course it is an upside, too. The anonymous comment thread is actually shedding some light on real management problems at Microsoft that otherwise would continue to be swept under the rug. They might still be swept under for all I know, but the possibility is there of having that discussion.

Of course I can’t resist a little schadenfreude over one gripe aired in the course of the thread: “What’s the difference between OS X and Vista? Microsoft employees are excited about OS X.” That’s a little unfair, of course, but it’s also funny, and as Apple pushes forward toward its fifth major OS release since Windows XP while Microsoft struggles for the first one (and alas, in this game, major efforts like SP2 don’t count as more than point releases), it sounds like the truth.

Disclosure: I am a former Microsoft employee who did not work on Windows, though I have friends who do. While I am a Mac user at home, it is in my professional interest that Microsoft keeps the IT ecosystem healthy by shipping Vista on time.