He pointed out that it is his group's explicit policy not to talk about future products until the release was several months away from release to manufacturing.
Software projects are volatile things - there are many potential events that may force you to change scope or schedule of the project. A few of these events:
- an engineering problem
- budget reallocation away from your project
- a shift in the marketplace
- a competitor's announcement
So if you talk about your future product to the press or via a blog, it's easy to make implicit commitments - features or schedule that may be in flux internally, but once published becomes concrete in the customer's mind. And those commitments can lead to customer dissatisfaction and press angst when something about the project changes.
I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I think any feedback from customers is valuable, and blogs open you up to the whole Internet community (as opposed to a focus group selected by marketing). On the other hand, I can understand the desire to avoid the reputation of someone who makes and breaks commitments on a regular basis. Not to mention that if you start talking about features a year ahead of RTM, that becomes very valuable (and incredibly cheap!) competitive intelligence for your rivals.
What made me think of this was this article on current happenings in the next major release of Windows (internally called "Longhorn"), and read the following quote:
What's not up in the air, however, is Longhorn's ship date. The company is now committed internally to shipping Longhorn in May 2006.Note that this quote says "committed internally" (italics mine).
Microsoft has really been burned in the past for committing to schedule and/or features way too early (the opposite of what I describe above from the IBM product manager). Sometimes this tactic is used to FUD competitors (e.g. pre-empting a competitor's actual product release by announcing competitive vaporware). But other times it's just plain enthusiasum for a future product.
I'm really not sure what the right answer is to this question, or even if there is a right answer. My gut feeling tells me that, the more input and feedback from the customer community, the better. Maybe its just a matter of putting up appopriate disclaimers.
In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if Microsoft can hit its internal May 2006 commitment on Longhorn. My bet is probably not, unless there's a heck of a lot of buffer time in the next sixteen months to deal with unexpected stuff. But since it's not a published commitment, they should have the freedom to move that date at will.
By that time I may be a Mac user anyway.