We Come to Bury WinFS...

by Charles Miller on June 25, 2006

The first thing to strike me about the blog post announcing the end of WinFS as a Vista feature is how totally un-blog-like it is.

Every comment (bar one) got the point. WinFS is dead. Its carcass is being split between SQL Server and ADO.NET, and the relational filesystem that was going to change the way we use computers is no longer just postponed to be shipped after Vista, it's gone.

The blog post itself, however, is written entirely in marketing-speak. The engineer talks about how super-excited the team is about this "new direction", how encouraging this news is, and leaves the fate of Vista for a final, particularly obfuscatory paragraph. Nary a word is allowed to suggest that the last nail in the coffin for Vista's most eagerly anticipated feature might be a huge let-down to those people who have been watching it slip further and further down the schedule since its fanfare announcement as a part of Longhorn three years ago.

Did Microsoft forget everything Scoble was supposed to be teaching them, so quickly?

Every now and then, you've got to put out a mea culpa. You've promised something that turned into something else, or that you changed your mind about, or that you just can't deliver. In the mass-media world, you do this by spinning the story as positively as you can. The message will be filtered by intermediaries before it reaches the public, and it's expected the journalists in the middle will get the point, pulling quotes from the positive spin to offset the otherwise negative message.

Journalists know the game, and play it because that's how things are done. Take the middle-man out, though, and the whole thing just looks like what it is: fake, fake, fake. It's perfectly reasonable to sugar-coat a bitter pill, but giving someone a teaspoon of sugar while you sneak up behind them with the suppository won't make you any friends at all.

In a comment on a blog trackbacking the original post, "Alan" adds:

Microsoft seem to have this habit of promising things they never release. They should just do it the OSX way, and only release information on components that are pretty much a sure thing, and even then only a few months tops before release.

Microsoft may have other ideas.

Apple have a reputation as an innovator, and are profoundly in the position of the underdog in the operating system wars. From Apple's point of view, the worst thing that could happen is that they announce an innovative product, only to have it pre-empted by a competitor (in this case Microsoft) before the official release, robbing Windows users of any reason to 'switch'.

Microsoft, on the other hand, are the massive incumbent with a reputation (deserved or otherwise) for producing reasonably good copies of the innovations of others. In chapter 14 of Accidental Empires, Robert X. Cringely describes five techniques a large incumbent can use to control the market:

  1. Announce a direction, not a product (people will put off buying competing products because you've just told them they're the old way of doing things).
  2. Announce a real product, but do so long before you actually expect to deliver, disrupting the market for competing products that are already shipping.
  3. Don't announce a product, but do leak a few strategic hints, even if they aren't true.
  4. Don't support anybody else's standards; make your own.
  5. Announce a product, then say you don't really mean it.

Remember, WinFS was announced before Apple first showcased Spotlight as a part of OS X. When Tiger was demonstrated at WWDC 2004, it was heralded with cheeky "Introducing Longhorn" banners, to which Microsoft adherents replied: "Sure, but Spotlight is just an inverted index hacked on top of the existing filesystem. WinFS's integrated-from-the-ground-up approach will bury Spotlight."

(Note, I'm not saying that WinFS was a deliberate exercise in vapourware. There are other, better explanations of the project's failure that more knowledgeable pundits are raking over as I write. I'm just saying that over-promising and under-delivering can be at least a short-term competitive advantage.)

The irony, of course, is that in Accidental Empires, Cringely was describing IBM, not Microsoft. The original definition of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, as described in the Jargon File, is:

"FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering [Amdahl] products.” The idea, of course, was to persuade them to go with safe IBM gear rather than with competitors' equipment. This implicit coercion was traditionally accomplished by promising that Good Things would happen to people who stuck with IBM, but Dark Shadows loomed over the future of competitors' equipment or software.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The other irony is that in this chapter, Cringely describes how these tactics, while disrupting their competitors, ended up losing IBM various segments of the PC market, losing them the respect and trust of their customers. Which sort of takes this blog-post full-circle: in the absence of an honest voice admitting fault, you're left with the immortal words of John Lydon: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

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