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Archive of Past

Continued from Flashback:

Building a better site
The launch of Windows 95 illustrated the need for a cohesive Web process, and led to the core Web team being spun off into its own group within Microsoft: the Customer Systems Group. It initially consisted of a handful of people, most of whom were on the operations team. Home page content was eventually transferred from developer hands to a program manager, and finally - after several prominent typographical and grammar errors - a full-time editor in May 1996.

"At the time, the audience was about 35,000 a day," said then-editor Lyn Watts. "We once had a broken link on our page all day and if anyone noticed, no one mentioned it. Today we'd know in one minute and have it fixed the next."

New services were rolled out in stages. First, a publishing tool was created to put control of the Web pages into the hands of the product groups and other Microsoft teams, freeing account managers to manage more high-level tasks, such as creating new databases to drive increasingly complex content requests.

Next, a Web stats tool was created so publishers could quickly see daily page traffic. But this level of information didn't provide enough depth, so a comprehensive registration system was devised to replace hundreds of individual registration databases - each requiring customers to re-enter much of the same information, but in a manner that wasn't sharable.

At the same time, Web site traffic was climbing at a rate of about 10 percent per month. To give you an idea of what that means, the daily site traffic of 35,000 in mid-1996 has grown to 5.1 million visitors today.

"That's just incredible growth," said Tim Sinclair, then lead producer and now general manager for "To manage it, you have to be operationally, developmentally, and organizationally sound or it will overwhelm you. And it almost did on several occasions."

"Cartoon" - click to enlarge Inspiration and salsa
In the year that followed the Windows 95 launch, the home page weathered a quick succession of home page refreshes. The "Collage" home page was replaced with "Cartoon," a professionally designed page with colorful icons for navigation. However, the page was considered "heavy" for the majority of Web site visitors, many of whom were still arriving on 9600 bps connections. So in mid-1996, launched a spare design called "Minimalistic" to make the home page load much more quickly.

"Minimalistic" - click to enlarge This page design lasted only three months, due to the launch of Internet Explorer 3.0 in August. To show off some of the fancy new features of the browser, and because the minimalist approach wasn't showy enough to satisfy customers' expectations, a page called "Recycle Can" was introduced featuring a more sophisticated layout and interactive effects such as links that lit up when moused over.

It was around this time that Group Program Manager Steve Bush and producers Kari Richardson and Lisa Post attended an unproductive conference in San Francisco. Seeking refuge from panels and sessions that had little or nothing to do with the problems they were facing on the Web site, they escaped for an early dinner at a Mexican restaurant and began talking about creating useful, consistent navigation on the Microsoft Web site.

"Recycle Can" - click to enlarge The idea emerged: They should build an icon-based toolbar, similar to the button bars found in products like Microsoft Office - the product team where Bush worked before he moved to "Steve actually had his laptop under the table, and he pulled it out and started drawing icons, and pulling icons out of system files." It wasn't long before they had a prototype button bar to show people.

But there was a problem: The fancy icons (a magnifying glass for "search," a pencil for "write us") looked too similar to the buttons used for Web browser navigation. "We decided that while the concept was great, the implementation wasn't," Richardson reports. The buttons were re-tooled into small, rectangular black buttons with only a small icon of a house for the "home" page, and then - to yield a consistent site appearance and easy navigation to core site features from anywhere on - deployed site-wide.

A new beginning
"Branded Yellow" - click to enlargeMuch of the more recent development of is faithfully chronicled in the pages of Microsoft Backstage. Many of the problems of the frontier days of the Web are gone, replaced by well-crafted planning and build processes and careful release management.

"It was fun building infrastructure, although I'm sure we didn't know that's what we were doing at the time it was happening," said Stephanie Weeks, one of the first account managers who now manages development projects for "I remember the camaraderie and sweat equity, watching Ingalls and Heaney fighting to keep the handful of Web server boxes up and running."

A pivotal date is August 14, 1996: The day that hordes of Web users came to looking for Internet Explorer 3.0. The systems team had their own version of "Midnight Madness," a term they adopted to describe the mayhem that ensued when demand for the Web browser greatly exceeded expectations.

"Steve Heaney and Mark Ingalls were literally in front of the FTP and download servers for an entire day rebooting them to keep them up because there were too many users for what the boxes could handle," said Todd Weeks, now's systems operations manager. "Two weeks later, they hired a capacity planner for the download program so we wouldn't have the same fiasco for Internet Explorer 4.0."

"Branded Blue" - click to enlargeThroughout 1997 and 1998, the site "grew up" and went from being the Web equivalent of a start-up company to a world-class organization. "Could we make the transition? There was a big question mark," notes Sanjay Parthasarathy, who took over as general manager of the group that runs in late 1997. Parthasarathy introduced the concept of Internet dial-tone to the site, the idea that a simple, effective site that runs quickly and predictably is better than a fancy one that crashes frequently or angers customers.

"I say this all of the time: Your site is only as good as the processes behind it," he said, noting that running a world-class Web site is an artful combination of great technology and excellent processes. "The second part of the transition was just an attitude change - that we're no longer in our private sandbox, that we're mission critical."

"Home Page 8" - click to enlarge During this period, the home page became leaner and servers were clustered and load balanced for redundancy. Each group created a set of core processes to be implemented for, say, developing a new home page design, localizing site content for more than 30 international subsidiary sites around the world, or responding to a data center problem. Single points of failure and bottlenecks were hunted down and eliminated.

"Now there's a controlled atmosphere," added Stephanie Weeks. "We know where we're going. We know what we're doing. It's still exciting, it's still cutting edge. It's just a different flavor."

Pages are now backed up on testing and staging servers as well as the 35 live servers that make up Weblint was long ago retired in favor of a handcrafted rules-checking process in PubWiz, the internal publication tool that replicates content to the live site. And a scalable form of personalization has weathered successful pilot programs on MSDN, TechNet, and several other internal sites and seems destined for the home page in early 2000.

What will the future of Microsoft on the Web look like? We have a few ideas on the subject. Check back in about 50, er, six years for a full report.

Dave Kramer edits the home page and Microsoft Backstage. He was part of the Microsoft Windows CE Web site launch in November 1996 and is now part of the team working on the next version of the home page.

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Last Updated: December 24, 1999