History

  • The Old New Thing

    From Microsoft's mail room to the board room

    • 14 Comments

    In the early 1980's, Microsoft moved its headquarters from downtown Bellevue to Northup Way in Bellevue, a building which later served as a training center (Microsoft University) and is now the North Campus of Bellevue Community College. This is the building in which the infamous Bill Gates Tiger Beat-style photo was taken, and the one I told a story about some years ago.

    At the time, the company was still very small, and the task of managing the relocation was shared among all the employees. After everybody settled in at the new building, it became apparent that the mail volume was barely a trickle. In particular, checks were not coming in, which is kind of an important part of running a business.

    In the excitement of moving, nobody remembered to file a Change of Address form with the Post Office. A visit to the old Bellevue offices revealed a huge mound of mail at the old location.

    A Change of Address was quickly filed, but in the meantime, Steve Ballmer became the company mailman. Every day, he would drive to the old offices, pick up the mail that had accumulated, dump it in the trunk of his car, then deliver it to the Northup offices.

    (Today's story is in recognition of the 238th birthday of the United States Postal Service.)

  • The Old New Thing

    Why is the syntax for touching a file from the command prompt so strange?

    • 38 Comments

    The magic incantation for updating the last-modified date on a file is

    COPY /B FILE+,,
    

    What strange syntax! What's with the plus sign and the commas, anyway?

    The formal syntax is the much more straightforward

    COPY /B A+B+C+D
    

    This means to start with the file A, then append the files B, C, and D, treating them all as binary files.

    If you omit the B+C+D part, then you get

    COPY /B A+
    

    This means "Start with A, then append nothing." The side effect is that the last-write time gets updated, because the command processor opens A for append, writes nothing, then closes the handle.

    That syntax has worked since at least MS-DOS 2.1 (the earliest version I still have a virtual machine for).

    I dont know where the two-comma version came from, but it most likely exploited a parsing glitch in COMMAND.COM, and somehow this variant gained traction and became the version everybody used (even though the other version is two keystrokes shorter). As a result, this weird syntax has become grandfathered as a special-case in the CMD.EXE parser. Here's some actual code from the part of CMD.EXE which parses the arguments to the COPY command:

    if (parse_state == SEEN_TWO_COMMAS)
        copy_mode = TOUCH;
    
  • The Old New Thing

    The credit card with a half-million-dollar credit limit

    • 26 Comments

    Corporate policies for acquiring hardware typically require going through a bunch of procedures, like issuing purchase orders, getting appropriate approvals, all the usual red tape with the purpose of preventing fraud. But the Windows 95 project was so notoriously behind schedule that upper management removed some procedural roadblocks.

    To expedite the acquisition of hardware for members of the development team, the administrative assistant for the core development team was issued a corporate credit card with a credit limit of $500,000. (You can calculate what $500,000 in 1994 dollars corresponds to in today's money.) I assume the theory here was "buy first, fill out paperwork later."

    "It's kind of weird having a credit card in your pocket that you could buy a house with."

  • The Old New Thing

    Why was the Windows source code trunk called the Blue Line?

    • 15 Comments

    The nickname doesn't get used much at all any more, but back in the day, the Windows source code trunk was called the Blue Line. Where did it get that name?

    From the color of the whiteboard pen.

    When the branching structure was worked out, the trunk was drawn with a blue pen. If you were in that meeting, and you wanted to raise a point about the diagram, you might say, "But when the red line meets the blue line…", or "How do changes get from the green line to the blue line?"

    Everybody called the trunk the "blue line" in the meeting, and that nickname carried forward into the internal documentation. Of course, if you weren't at that meeting, it was a giant mystery why the trunk was called the Blue Line.

    A mystery that has now been resolved, long after everybody stopped using that nickname.

  • The Old New Thing

    Where did the names of the fonts Marlett and Verdana come from?

    • 17 Comments

    Commenter BAA says that the -lett part of Marlett comes from the designer Virginia Howlett. BAA adds, "I forget the 'Mar' but I believe it was a co-creator."

    If so, then that co-creator was Suzan Marashi, if Vincent Connare is to be trusted. On page 17 of the PDF document From The Dark Side..., Connare identifies the authors of the font as Virginia Howlett, Rom Impas, Suzan Marashi, and Alison Grauman-Barnes. He also identifies Eliyezer Kohen as the person whose idea it was to use a special-purpose font.

    According to Virginia Howlett, the original name for the font Verdana was Ventana, which means window in Spanish. Lawyers apparently objected to the name, and the font team explored variations on verde (which means green in Spanish) and verdigris (a green pigment), thereby invoking the color associated both with Washington (The Evergreen State) and Seattle (The Emerald City). The second part of the font name comes from Howlett's granddaughter Ana, following in the tradition of font designers naming fonts after their daughters.

  • The Old New Thing

    The most expensive notepads in Microsoft history

    • 9 Comments

    Many years ago, I visited the office of a colleague who worked on Internet Explorer in order to work on some problem or other. As we investigated the issue, we took notes on a 5"×7" tear-off notepad which bore the logo Forms³.

    My colleague then pointed out to me that we were taking notes on the most expensive notepads in Microsoft history.

    Forms³ (pronounced "forms-cubed") was the code name for the project that was the precursor to Trident, the layout engine that powers Internet Explorer. As I recall the story as it was told to me, project management thought it would be cool to have custom notepads made for their project. The people responsible for converting this idea into reality designed a logo, laid it out, and found a vendor to produce the notepads. But there was some sort of misunderstanding (maybe the asked for too many colors? didn't order enough notepads to trigger the bulk discount?), and the price for the notepads ended up being something ridiculous like $10 for a 50-page notepad.

    That's how the most expensive notepads in Microsoft history came to be.

    Bonus chatter: Oh, by the way, the word "precursor" I used up there? Yeah, that was a euphemism for "cancelled (but used as a learning opportunity)." Microsoft engineers are fond of black humor when it comes to software (especially software made by Microsoft) as a way of coping with adversity, and after the Forms³ project was cancelled, there was a subculture of engineers who morbidly called it Forms tubed.

  • The Old New Thing

    Where did the research project RedShark get its name?

    • 21 Comments

    Project code names are not arrived at by teams of focus groups who carefully parse out every semantic and etymological nuance of the name they choose. (Though if you read the technology press, you'd believe otherwise, because it turns out that taking a code name apart syllable-by-syllable searching for meaning is a great way to fill column-inches.) Usually, they are just spontaneous decisions, inspired by whatever random thoughts jump to mind.

    Many years ago, there was an internal user interface research project code named RedShark. Not Red Shark but RedShark, accent on the Red. Where did this strange name come from?

    From a red shark, of course.

    When the project started up, the people in charge were sitting around and realized they needed to give the project a name. It so happened that the office they were sitting in belonged to a team member who collected a lot of strange toys. One of those toys was an small inflatable red shark.

    Somebody looked around the room and spotted the red shark. "Let's call it RedShark." Nobody else had a better idea, so the name passed by default.

    That small inflatable red shark became their mascot and hung from the ceiling in the hallway.

    No deep, hidden meaning. Just a $3 cheap plastic toy that happened to be in the right place at the right time.

  • The Old New Thing

    Some trivia about the //build/ 2011 conference

    • 12 Comments

    Registration for //build/ 2013 opens tomorrow. I have no idea what's in store this year, but I figure I'd whet your appetite by sharing some additional useless information about //build/ 2011.

    The internal code name for the prototype tablets handed out at //build/ 2011 was Nike. I think we did a good job of keeping the code name from public view, but one person messed up and accidentally let it slip to Mary-Jo Foley when they said that the contact email for people having tax problems related to the device is nikedistⓐmicrosoft.com.

    The advance crew spent an entire week preparing those devices. One of the first steps was unloading the devices from the pallettes. This was done in a disassembly line: The boxes were opened, the devices were fished out, then removed from the protective sleeve. At the end of this phase, you had one neat stack of boxes and one neat stack of devices.

    The advance crew also configured the hall so they would be ready to start once Redmond sent down the final bits of the Developer Preview build. The hall was divided into sections, and each section consisted of eight long tables. Four of the tables were arranged in a square, and the other four tables were placed outside the square, one parallel to each side, forming four lanes.

     
     
           
     
     

    Along the inner tables, there were docking stations, each with power, wired access to a private network, and a USB thumb drive. Along the outer tables, there were desk organizers like this one, ready to hold several devices in a vertical position, and next to the organizer was a power strip with power cables at the ready.

    In this phase of the preparation, the person working the station would take a device, pop it into a docking station, and power it on with the magic sequence to boot from USB. The USB stick copied itself to a RAM drive, then ran scripts to reformat the hard drive and copy all the setup files from the private network onto the hard drive, then it installed the build onto the machine, installed Visual Studio, installed the sample applications, flashed the firmware, and otherwise prepared the machine for unboxing. (Not necessarily in that order; I didn't write the scripts, so I don't know what they did exactly. But I figure these were the basic steps.) Once the setup files were copied from the private network, the rest of the installation could proceed autonomously. It didn't need any further access to the USB stick or the network. Everything it needed was on the RAM drive or the hard drive.

    The scripts changed the screen color based on what step of the process it was in, so that the person working the station could glance over all the devices to see which ones needed attention. Once all the files were copied from the network, the devices were unplugged from the docking station and moved to the vertical desk organizer. There, it got hooked up with a power cable and left to finish the installation. Moving the device to the second table freed up the docking station to accept another device.

    Assuming everything went well, the screen turned green to indicate that installation was complete, and the device was unplugged, powered down, and placed in the stack of devices that were ready for quality control.

    The devices that passed quality control then needed to be boxed up so they could be handed out to the conference attendees. Another assembly line formed: The devices were placed back in the protective sleeves, nestled snugly in their boxes, and the boxes closed back up.

    Now, I'm describing this all as if everything ran perfectly smoothly. Of course there were problems which arose, some minor and some serious, and the process got tweaked as the days progressed in order to make things more efficient or to address a problem that was discovered.

    For example, the devices were labeled preview devices, but shortly before the conference was set to begin, the manufacturer registered their objection to the term, since preview implies that the device will actually turn into a retail product. They insisted that the devices be called prototype devices. This meant that mere days before the conference opened, a rush print job of 5000 stickers had to be shipped down to the convention center in order to cover the word preview with the word prototype. A new step was added to the assembly line: place sticker over offending word.

    Another example of problem-solving on the fly: The SIM chip for the wireless data plan was preinstalled in the device. The chip came on a punch-out card, and the manufacturer decided to leave the card shell in the box. Okay, I guess, except that the card shell had the SIM card's account number printed on it. Since the reassembly process didn't match up the devices with the original boxes, you had all these devices with unmatched card shells. In theory, somebody might call the service provider and give the account number on the shell rather than the number on the SIM card. To fix this, a new step was added to the assembly line: Remove the card shells. All the previously-assembled boxes had to be unpacked so the shells could be removed. (At some point, somebody discovered that you could extract the shells without removing the foam padding if you held the box at just the right angle and shook it, so that saved a few seconds.)

    Now about the devices themselves: They were a very limited run of custom hardware, and they were not cheap. I think the manufacturing cost was in the high $2000s per unit, and that doesn't count all the sunk costs. I found it amusing when people wrote, "What do you mean a free tablet? Obviously they baked that into the cost of the conference registration, so you paid for it anyway." Conference registeration was $2,095 (or $1,595 if you registered early), which nowhere near covered the cost of the device.

    Some people whined that Microsoft should have made these devices available to the general public for purchase. First of all, these are developer prototypes, not consumer-quality devices. They are suitable for developing Windows 8 software but aren't ready for prime time. (For one thing, they run hot. More on that later.) Second of all, there aren't any to sell. We gave them all away! It's not like there's a factory sitting there waiting for orders. It was a one-shot production run. When they ran out, they ran out.¹

    Third, these devices, by virtue of being prototypes, had a high infant morality rate. I don't know exactly, but I'm guessing that maybe a quarter of them ended up not being viable. One of the things that the advance crew had to do was burn in the devices to try to catch the dead devices. I remember the team being very worried that the hardware helpdesk at the conference would be overwhelmed by machines that slipped through the on-site testing. Luckily, that didn't happen. (Perhaps they were too successful, because everybody ended up assuming that pumping out these puppies was a piece of cake!)

    Doing a little back-of-the-envelope calculations, let's say that the machines cost around $2,750 to produce, and that a quarter of them failed burn-in. Add on top of that a 25% buffer for administrative overhead, and you're looking at a cost-per-device of over $4,500. I doubt there would be many people interested in buying one at that price.

    Especially since you could buy something very similar for around $1100 to $1400. It won't have the hardware customizations, but it'll be close.

    The hardware glitches that occurred during the keynote never appeared during rehearsals in Redmond. But when rehearing in Anaheim, the hardware started flaking out like crazy and eventually self-destructing. (And like I said, those devices weren't cheap!) One of my colleagues got a call from Los Angeles: "When you come down here, bring as many extra Nikes as you can. We're burning through them like mad!" My colleague ended up pissing off everybody in the airport security line behind her when she got to the X-ray machine and unloaded nine devices onto the conveyer belt. "Great, I just put tens of thousands of dollars worth of top-secret hardware on an airport X-ray machine. I hope nothing happens to them."

    Why did the devices start failing during rehearsals in Anaheim, when the ran just fine in Redmond? Because in Anaheim, the devices were being run at full brightness all the time (so they show up better on camera), and they were driving giant video displays, and they were sitting under hot stage lights for hours on end. On top of that, I'm told that the HDMI protocol is bi-directional, so it's possible that the giant video displays at the convention center were feeding data back into the devices in a way that they couldn't handle. Put all that together, and you can see why the devices would start overheating.

    What made it worse was that in order to cram all the extra doodads and sensors into the device, the intestines had to be rearranged, and the touch processor chip ended up being placed directly over the HDMI processor chip. That meant that when the HDMI chip overheated, it caused the touch processor to overheat, too. If you watched the keynote carefully, you'd see that shortly before the machine on stage blew up, you saw the touch sensor flip out and generate phantom touches all over the screen. That was the clue that the machine was about to die from overheating and it would be in the presenter's best interest to switch to another machine quickly. (The problem, of course, is that the presenter is looking out into the audience giving the talk, not staring at the device's screen the whole time. As a result, this helpful early warning signal typically goes unnoticed by the very person who can do the most about it.)

    The day before the conference officially began, Jensen Harris did a preview presentation to the media. One of the glitches that hit during his presentation was that the system started hallucinating an invisible hand that kept swiping the Word Hunt sample game back onto the screen. Jensen quipped, "This is our new auto-Word Hunt feature. We want to make sure you always have Word Hunt when you need it. We've moved beyond touch. Now you don't even need to touch your PC to get access to Word Hunt."

    Jensen's phenomenal calm in the face of adversity also manifested itself during his keynote presentation. You in the audience never noticed it, but at one point, one of the demo applications hit a bug and hung. Jensen spotted the problem before it became obvious and smoothly transitioned to another device and continued. What's more, while he was talking, he went back to the first device and surreptitiously called up Task Manager, killed the the hung application, and prepared the device for the next demo. All this without skipping a beat.

    We are all in awe of Jensen.

    When he stopped by the booth, Jensen said to me, "I don't know how you can stand it, Raymond. Now I can't walk down the hallway without a dozen people coming up to me and wanting to say something or shake my hand or get my autograph!" (One of the rare times we are both in the same room.)

    Welcome to nerd celebrity, Jensen. You just have to smile and be polite.

    Bonus chatter: What happened to the devices that failed quality control? A good number of them were rejected for cosmetic reasons (scuff marks, mostly). As a thank-you gift to the advance crew for all their hard work, everybody was given their choice of a scuffed-up device to take home. The remaining devices that were rejected for purely cosmetic reasons were taken back to Redmond and distributed to the product team to be used for internal testing purposes.

    ¹ My group had one of these scuffed-up devices that we used for internal testing. Somebody dropped it, and a huge spiderweb crack covered the left third of the screen, so you had to squint to see what was on the screen through the cracks. We couldn't order a replacement because there was nowhere to order replacements from. We just had to continue testing with a device that had a badly cracked screen.

  • The Old New Thing

    What's the story of the onestop.mid file in the Media directory?

    • 45 Comments

    If you look in your C:\Windows\Media folder, you'll find a MIDI file called onestop. What's the story behind this odd little MIDI file? Aaron Margosis considers this file a security risk because "if an attacker can cause that file to be played, it will cause lasting mental pain and anguish to everybody within earshot."

    Despite Wikipedia's claims[citation needed], the file is not an Easter Egg. The file was added in in Windows XP with the comment "Add cool MIDI files to replace bad old ones." So as bad as onestop is, the old ones must have been even worse!

    Okay, but why were they added?

    For product support.

    The product support team wants at least one MIDI file present on the system by default for troubleshooting purposes. That way, problems with MIDI playback can be diagnosed without making the customer go to a Web page and download a MIDI file. When asked why the song is so awful, the developer who added the file explained, "Believe it or not, OneStop is 'less bad' than the ones that it replaced. (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, etc.)" Another reason for replacing the old MIDI file is that the new one exercises more instruments.

    The song was composed by David Yackley.

    On the other hand, we lost clock.avi.

  • The Old New Thing

    For the Nitpickers: Enhanced-mode Windows 3.0 didn't exactly run a copy of standard-mode Windows inside the virtual machine

    • 45 Comments

    Generally speaking, Enhanced-mode Windows 3.0 ran a copy of standard-mode Windows inside the virtual machine. This statement isn't exactly true, but it's true enough.

    Commenter Nitpicker objected, "Why are you threatening us with the Nitpicker's Corner for asking about this issue instead of explaining it once and linking it everywhere?"

    Okay, first of all, as far as I can tell, you're the first person to ask about the issue. So you can't say "Everybody who asks about the issue is threatened with the Nitpicker's Corner" because up until you made your comment, nobody ever asked. Okay, well, technically you can say it, because every statement quantified over the empty set is true. But it is equally true that, at the time you made your comment, that "Everybody who asks about the issue is awarded a new car." So it is not a meaningfully true statement.

    I haven't bothered explaining the issue because the issue has never been central to the main point of whatever article happens to bring it up. The statement is true enough for the purpose of discussion, and the various little corners in which the statement breaks down have no bearing on the original topic. Nitpickers would point out that you can't combine velocities by simple addition because of the laws of Special Relativity. Even when the situation under discussion takes place at non-relativistic speeds.

    As for the suggestion, "Explain it once and link it everywhere," you're assuming that I can even explain it once, that doing so is less work than just saying "not exactly true, but true enough," and that I would enjoy explaining it in the first place.

    If you don't like it, you can ask for your money back.

    Okay, I went back and dug through the old Windows 3.0 source code to answer this question. It took me about four hours to study it all, try to understand what the code was doing, and then distill the conclusions into this article. Writing up the results took another two hours. That's six hours I could've spent doing something enjoyable.

    The 16-bit Windows kernel was actually three kernels. One if you were using an 8086 processor, another if you were using an 80286 processor, and a third if you were using an 80386 processor. The 8086 kernel was a completely separate beast, but the 80286 and 80386 kernels shared a lot of code in common. The major difference between the 80286 and 80386 kernels was in how they managed memory, because the descriptor tables on the 80386 were a different format from the descriptor tables on the 80286. The 80386 memory manager could also take advantage of the new 32-bit registers.

    But the difference between the 80286 and 80386 kernels were not based on whether you were running Standard or Enhanced mode. If you're running on an 80386 processor, then you get the 80386 kernel, regardless of whether you're using Standard or Enhanced mode Windows. And since Enhanced mode Windows required an 80386 processor, the behavioral changes between Standard and Enhanced mode were restricted to the 80386 kernel.

    The 80386 kernel was designed to run as a DPMI client. It asked the DPMI host to take it into protected mode, then used the DPMI interface to do things like allocate selectors and allocate memory. If you ran Windows in Standard mode, then the DPMI host was a custom-built DOS extender that was created just for Standard mode Windows. If you ran Windows in Enhanced mode, then the DPMI host was the 32-bit virtual machine manager. Abstracting to the DPMI interface allowed a single 80386 kernel to run in both Standard and Enhanced modes.

    And in fact if you ran Enhanced mode Windows with paging disabled, then the code running in the 80386 kernel was pretty much the same code that ran if you had run the 80386 kernel under Standard mode Windows.

    One obvious place where the behavior changed was in the code to manage MS-DOS applications, because Enhanced mode Windows could multi-task MS-DOS applications, and Standard mode Windows could not.

    Another place where the behavior changed was in in the code to allocate more selectors: The attempt to retry after extending the local descriptor table was skipped if you were running under the Standard mode DOS extender, because the Standard mode DOS extender didn't support extending the local descriptor table.

    And another difference is that the Windows idle loop in Enhanced mode would issue a special call to release its time slice to any multi-tasking MS-DOS applications. (If you were running in Standard mode, there were no multi-tasking MS-DOS applications, so there was nobody to release your time slice to.)

    Another thing special that the 80386 kernel did was register with the virtual machine manager so that it could display an appropriate message when you pressed Ctrl+Alt+Del. For example, you saw this message if you hit Ctrl+Alt+Del while there was a hung Windows application:

    Contoso Deluxe Music Composer


    This Windows application has stopped responding to the system.

    *  Press ESC to cancel and return to Windows.
    *  Press ENTER to close this application that is not responding.
       You will lose any unsaved information in this application.
    *  Press CTRL+ALT+DEL again to restart your computer. You will
       lose any unsaved information in all applications.

    But all these differences are minor in the grand scheme of things. The window manager behaved the same in Standard mode and Enhanced mode. GDI behaved the same in Standard mode and Enhanced mode. Printer drivers behaved the same in Standard mode and Enhanced mode. Only the low-level kernel bits had to change behavior between Standard mode and Enhanced mode, and as you can see, even those behavior changes were relatively minor.

    That's why I said it was "true enough" that what was running inside the virtual machine was a copy of Standard-mode Windows.

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