The Ultimate Gift

You’ve probably seen the Apple TV commercial in which the goofy PC guy and the cool Mac guy exchange holiday gifts. The Mac guy’s gift to the PC guy is a book of photos of the duo’s encounters. The PC guy’s gift to the Mac guy is a frighteningly thick book titled C++ GUI Programming Guide. It’s absolutely priceless.

In real life, it was a PC guy who gave the Mac guys what they always wanted this holiday season. The gift came in the form of a three-year-old e-mail in which a member of Microsoft’s “senior leadership team” proclaimed, “I would buy a Mac today if I was not working at Microsoft.” No doubt, the Mac guys received that gift with the glee of a 6-year-old who finally got a pony.

The e-mail, dated Jan. 7, 2004, and presented as evidence earlier this month in the case of Comes v. Microsoft Corp., an antitrust trial in Iowa, was written by James Allchin, co-president of Microsoft’s platforms and services division. It was directed to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and it held nothing back.

“I’m not sure how the company lost sight of what matters to our customers ... but in my view we lost our way,” Allchin railed. “I think our teams lost sight of what bug-free means, what resilience means, what full scenarios mean, what security means. ...”

We in the media naturally jumped all over the remarks, and last week Allchin was compelled to explain himself on the Windows Vista team blog.

“It was a rant encouraging a change to the way we were building Windows at the time,” Allchin wrote. “I was being purposefully dramatic in order to drive home a point ... that we needed to change and change quickly.”

Allchin will leave Microsoft next month in a departure that will coincide closely with the long-delayed launch of Vista on Jan.30. You have to wonder how his 16-year career at Microsoft will now be remembered. Will he be forever branded as the PC guy who gave the Mac guys the ultimate gift?

I’ve had only one encounter with Allchin during those 16 years, but it was enough to make me hope he’s treated more fairly than that.

In August 2003, about four and a half months before Allchin sent that now-famous e-mail to Gates and Ballmer, Computerworld’s Carol Sliwa, Mark Hall and I met with Allchin at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond. The timing could hardly have been more awkward for Allchin, who was spearheading the development of the critical next version of Windows, then code-named Longhorn. Microsoft and its users were reeling from the destructive effects of the Blaster worm, which had exploded onto the international scene just two weeks earlier.

What struck me at the outset of the meeting was that so many of the senior vendor executives I’d known over the years would have canceled such a meeting under the circumstances. As the meeting progressed, I was struck by Allchin’s passion and sincerity. No excuses. No vendorspeak. He was clearly fed up. “I’ve had enough,” he told us. “And I’m going to do something about it.”

It was in that context that Allchin would fire off the e-mail to Gates and Ballmer that winter. In his blog posting last week, Allchin recounted what that frame of mind yielded. “We changed dramatically the development process that was being used,” he wrote, “and we reset the Windows Vista development project in mid-2004, essentially starting over.”

In the end, that change may prove to be the PC guy’s ultimate gift. And the recipients won’t be the Mac guys.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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