Microsoft: Mum's the word on Windows 7

Tight-lipped approach will work only if the OS stays on schedule, says analyst

Microsoft today broke its silence about the next edition of its flagship operating system, but essentially all it said is that it would not talk publicly about Windows 7.

In both an entry posted to its Windows Vista blog and an interview with CNet's, Microsoft executives said they would have little to say about Windows 7, at least for now. That's a change from the approach it has taken in the past, particularly during the development of Vista.

"With Windows 7, we're trying to more carefully plan how we share information with our customers and partners," acknowledged Chris Flores, a director with the Windows Client communications team, in the blog post today. "This means sharing the right level of information at the right time depending on the needs of the audience."

Flores defended the closed-mouthed approach, saying that public disclosures were, not surprisingly, taken at face value by users and customers -- something that could present problems.

"We know that when we talk about our plans for the next release of Windows, people take action," Flores said. "As a result, we can significantly impact our partners and our customers if we broadly share information that later changes."

A pair of analysts agreed with Flores. "I'd rather know less information than have bad information out there," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "Talk about Windows Vista got us all excited, and people invested time and money in anticipation of features being there [in the final operating system] that weren't there."

"It's much better if they only discuss developments in private or not at all, [because] it's a bigger deal to users if they think something will be in [Windows 7] and then Microsoft misses the deadline for that feature," echoed Gartner Inc. analyst Michael Silver, pointing to what happened with Vista. "They talked more publicly about Vista, but in the end that didn't make them a lot of friends."

Microsoft was roundly criticized during the long run toward Vista for announcing several features -- among them a new storage subsystem, WinFS, that was dumped in 2004.

Neither Cherry nor Silver, however, see the tighter control on Windows development news as a major problem, at least with those who need to know. "The key thing here is to think about the lead times that people need," said Cherry, talking about hardware partners, tools and application developers, and corporate customers, in that order. "Who are the parties who need to know [about Windows 7], what do they need to know, and when?"

Silver opined that it was important for Microsoft to keep Windows 7 talk to a minimum in order to prevent users from ditching Vista deployment plans. Too much chatter about the upcoming upgrade -- Microsoft has said that it is targeting a launch three years after Vista's, which would put it in the late 2009 to early 2010 time frame -- might convince some corporate customers to just sit tight with Windows XP and skip Vista entirely.

"That's not good for Microsoft," he said.

The problem, as Silver sees it, is that Microsoft must withhold enough information so as not to give customers considering Vista second thoughts, but still release enough to make it possible for those same customers to plan for eventual deployment. But that may be impossible. "They're in a bad place whether they talk about Windows 7 or not," said Silver.

Microsoft will talk more openly about Windows 7 at some point. "As the product becomes more complete, we will have the opportunity to share our plans more broadly," Flores said. "We know that this is a change in our approach, but we are confident that it will help us not only to build even better products, but also to be more predictable in the delivery of our products."

That, said Cherry, is what's critical for Microsoft to get right. "Part of the problem is that people haven't believed what Microsoft's scheduled," he said, referring to the skepticism users had to adopt when deadlines repeatedly slipped during Vista's development. "Whether [development] is happening publicly or privately, it doesn't matter if you don't get the schedule right.

Will the new tactic of keeping the lid on work? Cherry said he isn't sure. "If they triaged the people who need to know in the right order, and they're notifying them with accurate information they can rely on, it's workable.

"The question, though, is, 'Does an approach that works with Microsoft Office, which has a much smaller developer base, work with something as large as a general-purpose OS?'" Cherry asked.

Steven Sinofsky, the Microsoft senior vice president who heads Windows development, had headed Office development previously and was well known for running a team that didn't disclose many details about its current work. "I don't know the answer," Cherry said, "but we'll find out with Windows 7, won't we?"

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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