In late 2013, Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet ran an insightful interview with departing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. In it, Ballmer identifies project Longhorn as his biggest regret.
Foley quotes Ballmer as saying, "When I look at it and I say, OK, what's the thing that I did that I feel -- that I regret the most, not just in my CEO-ship but my whole time here, it's absolutely 'Longhorn becomes Vista.' That was the single biggest mistake I made… Why? Not only because the product wasn't a great product, but remember it took us five or six years to ship it. Then we had to sort of fix it. That was what I might call Windows 7. And what we wound up with [was] a period of let's say seven or eight years where we had the A-team -- not all of the A-team but a bunch of our best people -- tied up not driving. We did not make years progress in eight years, and there were other things those people could have been working on, [like] phones… It wasn't Bill [Gates'] thing and it wasn't Jim [Allchin]'s thing and I didn't get it.”
That was precisely the problem. Longhorn was a massive time sink, basically impossible, and Ballmer didn’t get it.
That didn’t keep him from dangling Longhorn in front of the Windows peanut gallery. We were told, starting in July 2001, that Longhorn would be the know-all, be-all upgrade to Windows XP, Server, and Office -- basically, a feast on a technologically superior silver platter. Longhorn was supposed to include WinFS (see previous Cairo vaporware slide), with a new UI, 3D video (gulp!), vastly improved security, multimedia galore, automatic bug reporting, and a new set of APIs that would replace the Win32 API, called WinFX.
Microsoft didn’t do any of it. Many of us got suckered -- I was posting about Longhorn as late as April 2005. Instead of Longhorn, Microsoft left us with the biggest pile of bull pucky since Windows ME: Windows Vista.
The mess was so complete that Ballmer brought in the big guns to clean it up. Steve Sinofsky, basking in the limelight of a remarkable string of successful Office versions, moved to the big Windows chair. He and a large handful of talent took the mess that was Vista and, in three years, gave us a far better product in Windows 7.