The Two Forces at Microsoft

There are two opposing forces inside Microsoft, which I will refer to, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as The Raymond Chen Camp and The MSDN Magazine Camp.

Posted on May 2, 2019, 11:07 p.m.

There are two opposing forces inside Microsoft, which I will refer to, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as The Raymond Chen Camp and The MSDN Magazine Camp.

Raymond Chen is a developer on the Windows team at Microsoft. He’s been there since 1992, and his weblog The Old New Thing is chock-full of detailed technical stories about why certain things are the way they are in Windows, even silly things, which turn out to have very good reasons.

The most impressive things to read on Raymond’s weblog are the storiesof the incredible efforts the Windows team has made over the years to support backwards compatibility:

Look at the scenario from the customer’s standpoint. You bought programs X, Y and Z. You then upgraded to Windows XP. Your computer now crashes randomly, and program Z doesn’t work at all. You’re going to tell your friends, “Don’t upgrade to Windows XP. It crashes randomly, and it’s not compatible with program Z.” Are you going to debug your system to determine that program X is causing the crashes, and that program Z doesn’t work because it is using undocumented window messages? Of course not. You’re going to return the Windows XP box for a refund. (You bought programs X, Y, and Z some months ago. The 30-day return policy no longer applies to them. The only thing you can return is Windows XP.)

I first heard about this from one of the developers of the hit game SimCity, who told me that there was a critical bug in his application: it used memory right after freeing it, a major no-no that happened to work OK on DOS but would not work under Windows where memory that is freed is likely to be snatched up by another running application right away. The testers on the Windows team were going through various popular applications, testing them to make sure they worked OK, but SimCity kept crashing. They reported this to the Windows developers, who disassembled SimCity, stepped through it in a debugger, found the bug, and added special code that checked if SimCity was running, and if it did, ran the memory allocator in a special mode in which you could still use memory after freeing it.

This was not an unusual case. The Windows testing team is huge and one of their most important responsibilities is guaranteeing that everyone can safely upgrade their operating system, no matter what applications they have installed, and those applications will continue to run, even if those applications do bad things or use undocumented functions or rely on buggy behavior that happens to be buggy in Windows n but is no longer buggy in Windows n+1. In fact if you poke around in the AppCompatibility section of your registry you’ll see a whole list of applications that Windows treats specially, emulating various old bugs and quirky behaviors so they’ll continue to work. Raymond Chen writes, “I get particularly furious when people accuse Microsoft of maliciously breaking applications during OS upgrades. If any application failed to run on Windows 95, I took it as a personal failure. I spent many sleepless nights fixing bugs in third-party programs just so they could keep running on Windows 95.”

A lot of developers and engineers don’t agree with this way of working. If the application did something bad, or relied on some undocumented behavior, they think, it should just break when the OS gets upgraded. The developers of the Macintosh OS at Apple have always been in this camp. It’s why so few applications from the early days of the Macintosh still work. For example, a lot of developers used to try to make their Macintosh applications run faster by copying pointers out of the jump table and calling them directly instead of using the interrupt feature of the processor like they were supposed to. Even though somewhere in Inside Macintosh, Apple’s official Bible of Macintosh programming, there was a tech note saying “you can’t do this,” they did it, and it worked, and their programs ran faster… until the next version of the OS came out and they didn’t run at all. If the company that made the application went out of business (and most of them did), well, tough luck, bubby.

To contrast, I’ve got DOS applications that I wrote in 1983 for the very original IBM PC that still run flawlessly, thanks to the Raymond Chen Camp at Microsoft. I know, it’s not just Raymond, of course: it’s the whole modus operandi of the core Windows API team. But Raymond has publicized it the most through his excellent website The Old New Thingso I’ll name it after him.

That’s one camp. The other camp is what I’m going to call the MSDN Magazine camp, which I will name after the developer’s magazine full of exciting articles about all the different ways you can shoot yourself in the foot by using esoteric combinations of Microsoft products in your own software. The MSDN Magazine Camp is always trying to convince you to use new and complicated external technology like COM+, MSMQ, MSDE, Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer and its components, MSXML, DirectX (the very latest version, please), Windows Media Player, and Sharepoint… Sharepoint! which nobody has; a veritable panoply of external dependencies each one of which is going to be a huge headache when you ship your application to a paying customer and it doesn’t work right. The technical name for this is DLL Hell. It works here: why doesn’t it work there?

The Raymond Chen Camp believes in making things easy for developers by making it easy to write once and run anywhere (well, on any Windows box). The MSDN Magazine Camp believes in making things easy for developers by giving them really powerful chunks of code which they can leverage, if they are willing to pay the price of incredibly complicated deployment and installation headaches, not to mention the huge learning curve. The Raymond Chen camp is all about consolidation. Please, don’t make things any worse, let’s just keep making what we already have still work. The MSDN Magazine Camp needs to keep churning out new gigantic pieces of technology that nobody can keep up with.

Here’s why this matters.