A Brief INTERVIEW WITH JIM ALLCHIN, Co-President of Microsoft

Note: The following interview is an excerpt of an interview from a more comprehensive article on Windows Vista audio, in general, that will appear in the February issue of EQ magazine. This interview is reprinted here by permission of the publisher.
As co-president of Microsoft's Platforms & Services Division, James (Jim) Allchin shares overall responsibility with Kevin Johnson for the Microsoft division that includes Windows and the various Windows development groups. And as a member of the Senior Leadership Team at Microsoft, Jim has the task, along with Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates, of developing Microsoft's core direction. We asked Jim about his thoughts on music and Vista.
Gary Garritan: The music community is both thrilled - and relieved - that Microsoft will be focusing more on audio in Vista. Why do you feel audio and music production is important for Vista?

Jim Allchin: Audio and music production has always been important for Windows, though in the past we didn't do as much for professionals as I would have liked. Windows Vista has given us the opportunity to make the underlying architecture and services more powerful and also easier for developers to harness. As a musician myself, I've very happy to see the overall improvements and I've always pushed the Windows Audio team to do more. The spirit behind Windows Vista is to help connect people with their passions through a set of well-defined experiences, and music is one of them.

GG: Could you tell us about your musical background? And how does your music background help you to focus on the audio and music aspects of Vista?

JA: I'm an avid musician. In high school I started on the trumpet and played in the stage band. Later I got immersed in the guitar. For a while I was a professional musician, until I decided that technology was a more stable way to make a living. I have a music studio in my house and I use a lot of the tools that audio developers create. Some of these music scenarios are quite complex to manage, and to a degree that is our fault. Up to now it's been too complicated to figure out how to use things in the system, and applications have been too hard to write. We've worked to simplify both the end user experience and developer experience in Windows Vista. I think the progress is significant, and we hope that the results will save people both time and money. Since I have firsthand experience composing, recording, re-mixing, and listening, I've been able to give our development team some pretty detailed feedback.

GG: Does music help you in your job and your life?

JA: Music is a huge part of my life. In fact a lot of technical people at Microsoft are quite accomplished musicians. I think music attracts engineers because it's a unique combination of creativity and math. It's in a sense geeky while being immensely cool.

GG: What role do you see software musical instruments playing in the future?

JA: [Think how] electronic text complements printed material; software musical instruments complement physical instruments in a similar fashion. Printed books will never go away, but computing provides methods for searching, organizing, sharing, and visualizing information that books can't. For example, Princeton University has a laptop orchestra. One of the pieces they perform simulates the sounds of a casino. Each laptop is virtual slot machine whose sounds change based on whether the musician is "winning" or "losing." The conductor, who is a computer science professor, leads the orchestra from a server attached to all the laptops via a local area network. His job is to make sure that no musician is winning or losing too much. The piece is unique every time it's performed - the conductor doesn't use a baton to control sound, or even tempo. Also, think about the way computing can be used to automate the synchronization of sounds with sights. A simple example is a laser light show. Computing is broadening the tools we can use to create and manage artistic performance.

GG: Do you see Windows Vista becoming the primary platform for the musician?

JA: That's certainly our hope, as we've done a lot of work to simplify the audio architecture. One thing we did was to move some logic into the system plumbing, making it easier for an entry-level user to produce music on a PC with an on-board audio card solution. Having a self-contained audio engine means we can update it as we go. We've improved latency as well as the speed of disk I/O, and allow applications to have exclusive access to the hardware. The more developers take advantage of the new capabilities in the system, the better the experience will be for musicians. It's important for your audience to let the software and hardware community know what they want from their tools.