The big-bang theory of software releases doesn't work well in the age of the Internet, a lesson Microsoft hasn't learned yet.
A "No New Features" edict made a lot of sense when software was hard to deliver. The cost of burning CDs alone meant that when it came time to make changes, anything that wasn't absolutely needed was a risk not worth taking. Plus, when users are expected to pony up more money for a new version, there isn't a lot of incentive to add features to the old one. That whole equation changes when software is free or being paid for by subscription. Users often want improvements, but don't want radically different improvements that complicate upgrades.
Adding complex or radically different features also hampers slipstreamed updates. It would be hard to imagine slipstreaming Office 2003 to Office 2007 in a medium-to-large size organization. The application just morphed in too many ways -- file formats, user interface, menus, developer features -- to think about such a change. In situations like that, it can make sense to plan carefully. But the resistance that customers gave to Office 2007 showed that an incremental approach without radical new features might have gotten a better reception.
Internet Explorer 9 provides an opportunity for Microsoft to change its approach to versioning. With version 9, IE has reached a plateau that is solid and standards-compliant enough to implement the kind of quick-release cycle that Google Chrome is already using and that Mozilla Firefox expects to adopt this year. The phrase "shipping is a feature" has been used in the halls of Redmond for ages. With IE's two major competitors shipping at a breakneck pace, it's a competitive disadvantage if IE waits for years between major additions.
To make this kind of approach work, users and businesses need to feel confident that slipstreamed updates won't break existing applications and Web sites. Those updates also can't make changes to user interfaces that cause confusion or reduce productivity. My experience with Chrome and most Web-based services show that it can be done. The key is to make changes incremental and focus on small improvements. Over time, the little things add up.
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