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C9 Exclusive: MS Alumni Interview: Ben Slivka

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    I recently spoke with Ben by email, and asked if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for Channel 9 which he did!  See below.  I’m not sure if he will be available to post / comment – but I’ll send him the URL to this post.  -  Jamie

    What are your fondest memories of working at Microsoft?

    As I considered this question, I went back and read my “farewell” email that I sent on 8/23/1999 to say goodbye to the more than 500 people I had worked closely with in my 14+ years at Microsoft.  I didn’t see how to improve upon that, so here is just a mildly edited version.  Note that you should read this as if I had worked with you at Microsoft!

    ”As I think about my years at Microsoft, my most vivid memories are of the people of Microsoft, and the fun I had working with you.  The 80-100 hour weeks and adrenaline rush of Internet Explorer, the MS-DOS 6 late-night compression hit-squads, designing Microsoft Version 3 with the Middle Management Retreat crew, due diligence trips, recruiting trips, a few lawsuits, the 80386 OS/2 prototype, the Win95 ship party, and all the other trials and tribulations that consumed so much of our time and energy and passion.

    A few of you I hired into Microsoft, and others I recruited from elsewhere inside Microsoft or “inherited” by virtue of taking on a new assignment.  Some of my most satisfying work was helping you learn and grow, even for all the mistakes I made while “helping”.

    A few of you I actually worked for, and I learned a great deal from each of you, even if it didn’t appear so at the time! Wink

    And many of you I encountered along the way as I tried to get my own projects done, or tried to help you get yours done (or maybe we just ran into each other at parties.)

    2. What achievements were you most proud of?

    I’m very proud of the team efforts that I was fortunate to contribute to in building MS-DOS 6, Windows 95, Diamond [.cab files], Internet Explorer, and our Java VM.  Each of these efforts were successful only because of the outstanding people who had the right vision and the passion and the energy and the expertise to come together and build a great product.  And even in the less successful projects – OS/2, Panther, and Redshark – I learned so many valuable lessons.

    3. What was it like working on the original IE team?

    I started working very part-time on the “web browser” effort in July or August of 1994.  It wasn’t going as fast as I would have liked (I’m not the most patient guy Smiley, and so in early October, 1994, John Ludwig asked me to head up the effort.  I said OK, grabbed six other people, and started cranking.  We delivered three releases in 22 months, and I worked 80-100 hour weeks for 17 of those months.  So did a handful of the team which had grown to 60+ people by August, 1996.  These developers and program managers (testing was in a different group) built both the Win32 and Win16 versions of Internet Explorer.

    The IE team started out behind.  IBM launched OS/2 Warp Version 3 with a built-in web browser and dial-up Internet connectivity at the end of October, 1994.  And Apple Computer was making a ton of noise about building the Internet into MacOS.  And then Netscape posted Navigator in October or November.  And Chicago (as Win95 was known at that time) was slipping, so we had a serious mountain to climb!

    We got IE 1.0 done barely in time to include in the OEM (pre-installed on computers) version of Win95, and too late to be in the retail upgrade – the packaging decision had been made before we were sure of our schedule.  IE 2.0, with a team of 4 developers, was posted on 11/17/1995 – barely 4 months after IE 1.0 was done, and we worked on IE 3.0 in parallel with IE 2.0.  I hired 35 people in 4.5 months toward the end of 1995 to build the team for IE 3.0!

    We made the important decision to “componentize” IE3 in early 1996.  Instead of the monolithic app that IE 1 and 2 had been, we broke it up into large OLE objects: a DocObj container, an HTML rendering DocObj, scripting engines (for JScript and VBScript), and a few components for protocol-neutral I/O and http, ftp, etc. Just a month before the March, 1996, Professional Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, “Humpty Dumpty” was still in pieces, with very poor performance.  But the team worked incredibly hard and we were able to release an “alpha” test version of IE 3 as part of the ActiveX SDK on March 12, 1996.  We improved the performance enough to release a “beta” test version in late April or early May, and we got the final version done in mid-August, 1996.

    We took some risks with IE 3 – adding ActiveX control hosting and digitally signed controls, adding site ratings (the W3C PICS standard), and, by far the most important : Cascading Style Sheets (also a W3C standard)!  One of the most popular features with browser customers (as opposed to web developers) was the “Coolbar” – the toolbar that you could move around and customize.

    IE 1 and 2 had 3% of the browser market -- Netscape Navigator releases at the time were simply more feature-rich.  But when we released IE 3, Netscape had bet on a complete rewrite in Java (“Javagator”), which was a fatal mistake.  Java on Windows just didn’t perform well (even though Microsoft had built the best Java VM on any platform, it was impossible to build a large Windows app whose performance was competitive with a C/C++ app).  So Netscape 3 had a small team working on it and they only made modest improvements over previous releases.  IE won *all* the competitive press reviews except PC Magazine, and even they admitted IE 3 was the best Win32 web browser.  But because Microsoft didn’t have IE 3 on Unix and Win16, PC Mag gave the nod to Netscape.

    By the time IE 4 was released in 1997, IE browser market share had risen to 30%.  It’s true, if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door!

    4. Do you still have contact with any of the original team?

    Yes.  I trade email with folks from time to time, and sometimes we get together for coffee or lunch.  It is hard for me to believe that I first surfed the web nearly 10 years ago (July, 1994).

    5. What’s new since leaving Microsoft / what are you interested in?

    I left Microsoft in the fall of 1999, spent nine months at, and then decided I needed to focus my energy on my family and philanthropy.  I have three kids, I support my wife’s marathon schedule, and I’m on several boards:,,, and  I’m also working with several non-profit groups, including,, and  I host seven websites, and I enjoy digital photography.  Never a shortage of things to do!

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    I suppose that is why IE development has fallen behind the competitors (Opera/Mozilla/Safari) - far more people worked on IE in the early days than they do now.

    If the same effort was put into IE6 as was put into IE 1/2/3/4 then it would probably be a far better browser now (probably with tabbed browsing (people do like it, otherwise why do all other browsers feature it?), better bookmark management and integrated RSS support)

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    I remember those days well - and with much fondness.

    It seems like every other day there was a new IE , with new features.  I totally LOVED IE2 - with AVI support..  i think i still have a version somewhere ( it worked without installing - just from the folder)

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    i think if you look to msn browser they are doing stuff - but its ham strung by charges to use it.. and suffers from the inline iframe design - screwy on lots of pages etc.

    The no new features in IE blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Mr Alchin.. as i believe he wants the browser in Longhorn to disappear into OS - admirable..but its been 3 - 4 years of nothing! This based on numerous books ive read on that particular date. 

    So thats why no updates that are cool for IE - arguably since ver 4.

    (5 just simplified GUI and added more dhtml and active x stuff) 5.5 fixed it.. 6 made it better still - but no new features to speak of.

    On the bright side - Channel 9 is a return to the days where we could speak with MS devs like ben and chris jones etc..

    so thats a good thing Smiley

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    Sounds like I need to get my friend Chris on Channel 9. Would you guys be interested in seeing Chris Jones here? I will contact him today and set up a time to interview him if there is interest. Great job on the interview Jamie. One day I hope to be able to offer video upload to Channel 9 so that you guys can do your own interviews over Web cams or digicams and post them here as well.

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    I've had a chance to spend a year on the IE team (as a contractor, testing Outlook Express back around the IE5.5/early IE6 timeframe) myself, and it's certainly one of the more interesting ones I've been on.  Much of what used to be the IE team seems to have been pretty well absorbed into Windows shell team by now (I haven't kept up too well with my contacts over there though.)  I'm pretty sure my parents are still convinced that I never did any actual work during the time I was there...

    And yes, Chris Jones would be an interesting interview to get.

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    I remember when Ben started - his office was next to mine.

    We had some HUGE "discussions" about the console subsystem in OS/2 (which he was designing at the time).

    One of the charities he didn't mention he supported btw was Seattle Children's Theater - one I also support heavily.

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    Now, if you could get Adam Bosworth's view on IE3 and 4 that would complete the whole picture.

    IE5 was a perf release and IE6 was a standardization release - so IE3 and IE4 were where the major changes happened.

    I remember that early IE3 beta very well. It crashed a lot but was very impressive and when it hit gold it was time to listen to Microsoft's Internet story despite the perpetual anti-Microsoft freaks.

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    Adam Bosworth - YES
    The infamous skunkworks project that yeilded XML channels and on to .net

    another cool part ( mostly forgotten) was the original "integrated IE" beta.. i forget now what it was called.. but it was before ver 4 - maybe it was a plus pack.. damb i cant remember the beta name

    ** Nashville!    ( from bink site)

    Originated as Windows 96. "True Web Integration" technology. Web based shell for Windows. Designed as a new version of Windows but finally available as Internet Explorer 4 "Desktop Update" for Windows 95 and NT and integrated in next versions. (NOT IE4 itself!)

    also - yes! to chris jones.  * i only spoke with him on a few emails as ben went off to java..

    Those days were indeed magical
    you guys could use a few more of them
    channel 9 is a great step in that direction

    thanks to the powers that be over there (y) <- that's your thumbs up sign icon ( go johnathan go! Wink

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