REDMOND, Wash., March 8, 2001 — Great technology products dont just happen by chance. Theyre the result of outstanding development work backed up by strong research and support services, and all based firmly on consistent and comprehensive customer feedback. The technology companies that are the most successful are those that do the best job of listening to their customers and responding to their needs.
To ensure the success of its newest operating systems -- Windows 2000 and Windows XP -- Microsoft invested billions of dollars and marshaled the collective know-how of its development teams, researchers at Microsoft Research (MSR), and support professionals at the companys Product Support Services (PSS). Combined, these organizations provide the intellectual and human resources necessary to successfully address critical customer needs and ensure high customer satisfaction.
Three high-level Microsoft managers share their thoughts about that collaborative effort, describing how Microsoft works hard to develop advanced technologies and a wide range of services that fully support customers who deploy the company's breakthrough operating system products.
Customer Focus Yields World Class Support
After 11 years at Microsoft, Product Support Services General Manager Kevin Shea calls Windows 2000 the best product he's ever seen Microsoft ship.
That's high praise, given that Shea has contributed to most of the major products Microsoft has produced over the last decade.
His enthusiasm for Windows 2000 is borne out by statistics from his call centers. Shea says his organization is seeing 20 percent fewer support incidents per PC than with the 4.0 release of Windows NT. "That's a substantial support cost savings for enterprises that are running it," he notes, "a giant savings in uptime. It's significantly more stable and more progressive than anything we've seen before."
In large measure, Shea credits the success to Microsoft's heightened focus on customers, and on a partnership his organization has forged with product development teams and MSR.
Brian Valentine, senior vice president of the Windows Division, is Shea's internal customer at Microsoft. "I think Brian talks with people as much as I do, maybe more," Shea says. "The company has developed an incredible customer focus that we didn't have, say, 10 years ago."
Shea's organization delivers regular customer feedback updates to Valentine, but the development teams often take the initiative to search out that input on their own. Authorized Microsoft development personnel can access the PSS customer issues tracking tool to get insights into the specific concerns customers express about Windows 2000.
Shea's team also performs quarterly reviews with Valentine to provide him with what Shea calls a "worldwide view of the product issues we see."
In addition, during the product development cycle, three PSS teams visit the Microsoft campus to help support product developers. A beta team "provides Brian's development staff with critical feedback that shows how customers are actually using the product during the beta," Shea says.
A second team, a global support automation tools team, works with developers to ensure that Windows includes self-help tools that enable customers to find answers to questions or resolve problems without having to turn to support. Those same tools also allow support technicians to secure important data if customers ultimately require additional PSS support.
One such tool being incorporated into Windows XP lets customers receive electronic support within the product's help files. Customers can access help, enter a help request issue that automatically gets uploaded to Microsoft servers and open a Web response case. This feature is already built into Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), the operating system Microsoft designed for consumers.
"This is very efficient for customers, and it makes it easy for them to send us issues," Shea says. "Today, we do about 10 percent of our business that way, which is a huge jump from previous releases of Windows."
The third group of PSS staffers, the product feedback team, summarizes customer comments and then communicates that input back to the appropriate development groups. "They tell Brian Valentine's organization where we are expending the most labor supporting his product," Shea explains. "The feedback offers data about the areas of the product where customers are having the biggest problems."
These feedback mechanisms are in place now for Windows 2000, and are also being implemented for Whistler Server and Windows XP. The result, Shea says, is that Microsoft products are stable, reliable, and smart. "Windows 2000 shows how seriously we take customer feedback into account in making sure our products get better and better."
One example of this is the remote control capability in Windows XP, which allows Microsoft -- with permission from customers -- to operate a customer's machine remotely in order to diagnose and fix problems. "It's something we sorely need, and very helpful, convenient and time saving," Shea says.
Yet another feature results from work undertaken by the Adaptive Systems and Machine Learning groups within Microsoft Research. The collective work of those MSR teams helped design the troubleshooters found in Office and Windows products. The troubleshooters present customers with a series of brief questions that use decision theory and probabilistic techniques to narrow down and identify the most likely solutions.
The result of these and other technologies, Shea says, is that Windows 2000 and the Windows XP release place far fewer demands on corporate helpdesks.
"This isn't happening because someone is sprinkling pixie dust on us," Shea says. "It's because there's now a very close link between the support group, the development group and our customers. And that customer focus is paying off in a big way for everyone -- allowing us to build the features and stability our customers want."
Research and You Shall Find
Few software development companies are fortunate to have the intellectual resources of an in-house research lab staffed by many of the world's most prominent technologists.
Microsoft enjoys such good fortune. Microsoft Research , a 500-plus-member organization, spans four labs in Beijing, China; Cambridge, U.K.; Redmond, Wash.; and San Francisco, Calif.
Established in 1991, MSR is dedicated to conducting both basic and applied research in computer science and software engineering. The organization is chartered with developing new technologies that simplify and enhance the computing experience, reducing the cost of writing and maintaining software, and facilitating the creation of new types of software.
"Our goal is to work with Microsoft product and support groups to introduce new technologies that improve our products for our customers," says MSR Vice President Dan Ling. "Building close working relationships to enable such collaboration is an ongoing process that involves each individual researcher. Over the past decade, we have established a strong track record with key development groups."
That success, in part, is due to a concerted outreach effort. MSR staffs a liaison team that builds relationships between Microsoft product groups and research groups. The team works to bring developers and researchers together, and lays the foundations for technology transfers and joint development projects.
MSR works on "a wide range of advanced technologies," Ling says, "and as we talked to the Windows 2000 people, we realized that some of our work would accomplish things our customers have been asking for. Where we saw opportunities, we worked together to get those technologies into Windows 2000, Whistler Server and Windows XP."
A good example is Internet protocol research from MSR's Systems and Networking group. Working with researchers at the University of Southern California, MSR implemented version 6 of the Internet protocol (IP), called IPv6. An upgrade of the current IPv4 protocol, it offers new and expanded functionality regarding security, real-time data delivery -- known as quality of service -- extra IP address space, and enhancements to accommodate the increasing use of Internet-enabled portable devices.
Although the MSR implementation was originally intended for research and academic communities, the Windows group also saw the growing importance of the protocol for customers, and a joint effort to incorporate IPv6 into Windows 2000 was launched.
As a result, IPv6 now ships in Microsoft Developer Network technology previews , and will be incorporated into Windows XP.
Window 2000 also incorporates a core technology of MSR's Cryptography group: computational number theory. Encryption is based on a series of mathematical operations involving very large integers: whole numbers usually at least 300 digits long.
To speed the processes of encryption, decryption and key generation, and to make e-commerce transactions and email more secure, a component of Windows 2000 uses an innovative cryptographic approach called the Montgomery method, named after an MSR researcher. The method explores how to factor large integers, because the difficulty involved in that task is the foundation of cryptography.
The Cryptography group also has contributed to the development of a new Internet security protocol called Transport Layer Security, or TLS . This new worldwide standard, which replaces the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) approach, helps ensure the security of e-commerce transactions.
While these broader research contributions have enhanced the overall functionality of Windows, MSR also has contributed many other, sometimes lesser-known product improvements. For example, single instance store technologies eliminate identical files on a server so that many users can share a single server efficiently. And text-to-speech functionality allows the computer to take text input and read it back in a human-like form, a capability that is particularly important for product accessibility.
In many other areas -- including streaming media, data mining, computer-mediated collaboration, devices and wireless networking -- MSR teams have contributed to a wide variety of Microsoft's products, including its operating systems.
Another way MSR has contributed to Windows 2000 is not necessarily in the code itself, but in the way developers actually write software. Through its Programmer Productivity Research Center , MSR has been working on technology and tools to help developers write higher quality software and increase productivity. Many of these tools were used to build Windows 2000, thus contributing to the outstanding reliability of the product.
"By working together on a number of different projects, we've developed a solid working relationship between the Research and Windows development groups, "Ling says." And I expect that we'll collaborate on many other, even more ambitious projects moving forward."
MSR, PSS Open Windows of Opportunity
When producing software on a tight schedule, developers don't always think like the best chess players -- strategizing about their next five moves in advance.
Rather than mapping out a development strategy regarding future product releases, many naturally focus more pragmatically on addressing the most immediately relevant issues, and releasing the current product as soon as possible.
At Microsoft, however, developers -- who have the luxury of incorporating the customer-focused feedback of PSS and the visionary input of MSR -- can also think more broadly.
Windows Division General Manager John Frederiksen likes to quote a colleague in the development organization who says: "It's no longer good enough to make 10-percent improvements to our products. We need to tackle those things that are 100-percent improvements" -- quantum leaps that enhance the user experience or enable PCs to be used in new and innovative ways.
"With Windows 2000 we really did take the opportunity to develop what we believe is a breakthrough product," Frederiksen adds. "And because of that, we spent a tremendous amount of time making sure we captured the critical product support feedback."
That feedback, he says, helps development teams understand what customers view as confusing, what they don't like, or what causes them to pick up the phone and call Microsoft.
The PSS organization, for example, played a large role in identifying specific improvements regarding the reliability, supportability and manageability of Windows 2000. From a feature perspective, those contributions included enhancements such as remote diagnosis of technical problems, improved power management capabilities and wireless networking features that support mobile workers.
During the Windows XP beta 1 phase, PSS evaluated what support issues might result from changes made to the product, including enhancements to the user interface.
"PSS approaches products as our customers do," Frederiksen says, "The organization has a very solid understanding of the issues customers face, because they're the ones who take the support calls."
One result of the development team's collaboration with PSS is Windows XP's remote management capability.
"Not only can you send a secure, password protected support issue to Microsoft or to an original equipment manufacturer, but you can actually send a secure email link to friends to get their help," Frederiksen notes.
Speaking from personal experience, he says he spends a fair amount of time chatting with East Coast friends and relatives who are having trouble working with their computers.
"The biggest problem is that on the phone you can't see what they're dealing with, "he says." With the visibility that remote management provides, in five minutes I can help them solve a problem that might ordinarily take a half hour to resolve by phone."
That kind of visibility will help customers enjoy a richer PC experience, but a vision of another kind -- a view of what is possible -- also serves customers well.
"Oftentimes, it's easy to build what customers are asking for," Frederiksen says. "Microsoft Research tells us what's possible on the Windows platform -- ideas that may go above and beyond what customers are even thinking about today."
He notes that research into IPv6 -- the latest Internet protocol -- and enhancements to Windows XP's search interface are two significant areas where Microsoft's research facility has "contributed greatly."
"It's very much our responsibility to continue to improve the richness of the PC experience, but also Windows simplicity and ease of use," Frederiksen says. "The interaction with PSS and MSR allows us to be responsive to customer needs and to have a good sense of what's possible as computing technology evolves, "he says." Our customers are certainly the beneficiaries of those collaborations."