During more than 20 years in the computer industry -- 15 of them with Microsoft -- Jim Allchin has put his imprimatur on computer networking, the way people interact with those machines, and systems that can ward off digital miscreants. At some of the most important junctures in the PC business, Allchin has been there, riding herd on his programmers to think bigger, code better, ship faster. That didn't change Tuesday when Allchin, named co-president of Microsoft's new platforms group as part of a broad re-organization of the company, announced he would retire at the end of next year.
"If you want to make a difference and you see something that can be improved, then don't talk -- improve it," Allchin, 53, wrote in an E-mail to colleagues. "Now let's ship, ship, ship!"
The product he was referring to is Windows Vista, and by the time it arrives late next year -- assuming Microsoft keeps to its schedule -- it will be five years after the release of today's desktop operating system, Windows XP. That's an eternity in computing. But in an interview last week, Allchin said he's determined to make Vista the best performing, most popular Microsoft product yet, and is less concerned with deadlines than quality and users' experience with the PC. "We think it will be the highest-quality operating system we've ever shipped," he says, and consequently, potentially the fastest adopted operating system in history. On his watch, Microsoft has brought in new, high-tech programming tools from its research labs that could make its code sounder, and help the company deliver Vista on time. As it turns out, Vista will be the last Microsoft product shipped by teams managed by Allchin, a man famous for getting his charges to bear down and deliver.
"Vista is his baby -- it's his swan song," says Rob Enderle, principal of IT consultancy the Enderle Group. "It's night and day from where Windows has traditionally been."
Allchin shipped Windows XP, and before that Windows 2000, and oversaw delivery and engineering of Microsoft.Net, a wholesale change in Microsoft's underlying technologies ushered in at the beginning of this decade. A few years before that, he won an internecine battle that solidified Windows' supremacy at Microsoft over cross-platform technology advocated by former exec Brad Silverberg.
Before Microsoft plucked him in 1990, Allchin helped found Banyan Systems in the '80s, whose Vines software represented a leap in computer networking. "He influenced the thinking of a whole bunch of us working on network operating systems, both technically and from a user's perspective," says Michael Cherry, an analyst at consulting company Directions on Microsoft who worked for Microsoft from 1990 to 2000. Vines made it practical to find other users on a network -- a big argument for installing business PCs. "It was easy for people who weren't technically savvy," Cherry says.
In his E-mail to colleagues, Allchin said it was chairman Bill Gates' promise of getting his work before a bigger audience that drew him to Redmond. "When I first met Bill, he told me that no matter how good the software I built was, I would never be able to touch as many people as I would if I came to work at Microsoft. It was true then and it is even more true now. This is the place to be."
It's the place Allchin will remain for another year, until after Vista ships. On Tuesday, Microsoft promoted Allchin and Kevin Johnson as co-presidents of a new "platform products and services" division that will include Windows, server software, development tools, and Microsoft's MSN Internet business. Johnson will become division president after Allchin retires. The company also named Jeff Raikes and Robbie Bach presidents of two other newly created groups for business software, and entertainment and portable-computing products.
In his E-mail, Allchin said an illness 2-and-1/2 years ago caused him to "take a step back and evaluate all my priorities." That led to his decision to retire. Allchin had weighed retirement even earlier, but returned from a sabbatical several years ago re-energized, says analyst Enderle. "During his sabbatical he helped friends install Windows And he had a horrible experience," he says. "He came back from sabbatical with a new drive to build a product that met his standards Windows XP wasn't something you'd want to be remembered for."
In an E-mail to Microsoft's staff, CEO Steve Ballmer wrote that Allchin has had "an immeasurable impact on our success." Ballmer noted Allchin's dedication to making sure computers work in the everyday scenarios in which people expect them to function. But he acknowledged that Allchin has yet to complete his final act in the tech world. "Of course," said Ballmer, "we'll celebrate Jim's great contributions closer to when he actually retires."