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Monday, January 29, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Vista chief proud of accomplishments

Seattle Times staff columnist

Windows Vista is "awesome," said Jim Allchin, the 55-year-old programming wizard who led the $6 billion project through its ups and downs and finally out the door.

Yet as he prepares to leave Microsoft this week after 16 years building some of the most profitable and widely used products in history, Allchin doesn't see Vista as his crowning glory. Not because Vista, which launches to consumers Tuesday, doesn't include all the big advances that Allchin had envisioned for the product, or because its long and tortuous development process forced Microsoft to retool its software factory.

Instead, Allchin, co-president of Microsoft's Windows platform division, is most proud of building Microsoft's server business. He led it from industry laughingstock to a major force in technology, giving Microsoft's business a third leg and money machine that's approaching the scale of its Windows and Office franchises.

"I feel really good," he said, recounting his Microsoft career. "I helped build that business with a lot of incredible people."

Allchin said he's been asked to serve on boards and help at other companies, but he hasn't decided what he'll do next. He won't just sit on his beach in Laurelhurst strumming the guitar, though.

"I don't think I could get away from building stuff."

The former Florida farm boy has had plenty of offers. Earlier this month, he said that Steve Jobs tried to hire him away from Microsoft in the 1990s.

It's no wonder. Last quarter, the operating income of Microsoft's server business was on par not only with that of Jobs' iPod business, but Apple's entire product line.

But it took time to get there.

"In 1991 I would go to New York, and the businesses, they would just laugh at us and say, 'You're from Microsoft, you do toy desktops.' It was just rude," Allchin recalls. "Today we run some of the largest businesses in the world."

Allchin battled skeptics inside the company as well.

"Even internally [people would say] what is this server stuff? Bill [Gates] got it, but some of the others said, 'We've got to work with Novell or Unix.' I said no, we've got to build this."

His knowledge, style and jousting skills prevailed in the high court of Microsoft, but they also drew critics inside and outside the company.

Yet Allchin's persistence with servers, and his success in those internal battles, paid off in recent years as Windows and Office sales slowed and Microsoft's Web ventures failed to return a profit. When earnings were reported last week, server sales were up 17 percent, the 18th consecutive quarter of double-digit growth.

Eventually, Allchin rose to lead not only the server business but the Windows desktop, phone software, security and digital-media businesses. It was a lot for any one person, and the company was slow to respond effectively in new markets such as portable music players.

Vista also became too complicated and tangled in Microsoft's elaborate processes. In 2004, the company rebooted the project. Later, media and device software teams moved to the entertainment group.

Allchin, who had been fighting cancer, announced his retirement in 2005. Sales chief Kevin Johnson was named his successor.

But Windows desktop "client" systems have benefited from Microsoft's foray into servers. As Microsoft learned to make its servers more reliable and secure, it pushed that technology into Windows, improving the overall quality of its products, Allchin noted.

"We bring down the server technology into the client -- that's why the system's more reliable," he said.

Similarly, Allchin made sure Windows received industry-standard networking technology in the early 1990s, at the dawn of the Web era.

At one point, the company strategy was to push the TC4 networking standard, even though Allchin and others knew TCP/IP was emerging as the standard protocol, he recalled.

"We were saying, 'Are you nuts? This has been decided, it's TCP/IP,' " he said.

Allchin's side prevailed and TCP/IP appeared in Windows 95. That made "the Internet accessible to the average person, even though it had been in Unix and the like," Allchin said.

Among the many features of Vista that Allchin is enthusiastic about is another networking standard that he favors, IPv6, or Internet Protocol Version 6.

The tech industry has been working on IPv6 for more than a decade but now that it's built into Windows, its spread to PCs around the world is a sure thing.

Over time, that will once again improve the way people experience the Internet, Allchin said.

It's also part of the job that Bill Gates hired Allchin to do, back in 1990: lead Microsoft's networking strategy.

"We bring technology out to more people," Allchin said, "and that's why, I think, so many of us have worked at Microsoft."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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