Windows Confidential: The story of the $700 pagers

The behind-the-scenes drama of the daily build was a curious step in the evolution of smartphones.

Raymond Chen

The Windows team produces a new internal build of the OS every night. It’s known as the “daily build,” although the actual build occurs at night. The daily build gets its name because the goal is to have that build ready for testing when everybody comes in to work the next day. However, this plan only works if the build is completed on schedule.

If there’s a problem with the build, the Windows build team needs to find someone who can fix it, and fix it fast. Otherwise, the entire plan of having an overnight build falls apart. These days, this is less of a problem because our engineering processes do a pretty good job of ensuring the trunk is never broken. In the old days, though, a broken build was a fairly common occurrence.

Now paging ...

The original solution to the problem of the broken build was to assign a pager to every Windows component team. Those component teams were responsible for assigning their pager to someone who would be on call to deal with any build issues. Teams generally rotated pager duties among their more senior members.

Getting saddled with the pager wasn’t exactly something you looked forward to or enjoyed. It meant there was a chance your quiet evening at home was going to be interrupted by a call from a frantic build manager. You can tell how old this story is right off the bat because our high-tech communications system was a series of pagers.

Anyway, the build team tried to soften the blow of the burden of having to carry a build beeper around all the time by replacing the pagers with smartphones. These were a new and geeky technology at the time. Of course, the early smartphones were more like bulky personal digital assistants that could also send and receive telephone calls as a side effect. (Today’s smartphones are sleek and portable time-wasting devices, but the ability to make telephone calls remains somewhat of a side effect; one might argue that as a technological society, we haven’t made much progress from the early days of smartphones.) The theory was that if the build beeper was replaced with a smartphone—a cool, cutting-edge electronic gadget—people wouldn’t grumble so much about having to carry it around all the time.

Anyway, the problem with the plan of replacing pagers with smartphones was that this cutting-edge gadget wasn’t particularly exciting to pass around. It simply wasn’t worth the effort of personalizing it or entering data into something you would only have for a week. We’re talking ancient history here. There was no cloud synchronization. Heck, this was even before Wi-Fi. You had to use a modem and dial up a service provider if you wanted Internet connectivity.

At the time of this story, mobile phones weren’t very fancy. They were rapidly gaining in popularity, though. Roughly 40 percent of the United States population owned one. Therefore, having to carry around your own bulky gadget as well as the build team’s bulky gadget was actually worse than just carrying a little pager.

It wasn’t long before somebody put a sticker on the official build team smartphone with instructions on how to set up call forwarding so you could forward all calls to your personal cell phone. After setting that up, you just left the build team’s smartphone in your office. Then you would cancel call forwarding when your week of service was over.

The effect of this whole exercise was that the Windows build team ended up investing in what was effectively a bunch of $700 pagers. In retrospect, the Windows build team should have bought a bunch of Nintendo DSes with pagers glued to them. They would still have been bulky, but at least they would have been more fun than what was considered a smartphone at the time.

Raymond Chen

Raymond Chen's Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically titled book (Addison-Wesley, 2007) deal with Windows history and Win32 programming. Prices quoted don’t include applicable taxes.