Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sinofsky May be Out But Don't Expect the Same of Windows 8

If you're one of those folks that cheered the departure of Steven Sinofsky last week from Microsoft you may be anxiously awaiting the return of the good old days.  Surely the Start button will make a return and all this business about tablets and touch screens will go the way of Vista.

Don't count on it...

Sinofsky may have ruled the Windows division of Microsoft with an iron fist but he didn't operate in a vacuum even if other Microsoft divisions thought so.  Change was going to happen even if it was going to be painful and potentially risky to Microsoft's relationship with its customers.

That the basic Windows interface had remained unchanged over the last two decades wasn't lost on Steve Ballmer and other Microsoft Executives.  The popularity of touch devices from competitors like Apple and Android showed the direction of the market.  The design of Windows 8 was the response. 

Sinofsky's laser focus on Windows after his installment as division president in 2009 and success with the Windows 7 launch gave him the credentials to move Windows forward.  To many, his removal so soon after the launch of Windows 8 suggests that Windows 8 is a failed product destined to go the way of Microsoft Bob.  Steven Sinofsky was not Gabe Newell, however.

Job performance has never been a problem for Sinofsky but jealous protection of his division was.  Windows has always been the most visible Microsoft product with Office running a close second.  Not coincidentally, both products Sinofsky and his team had intimate involvement with.  Sinofsky was known to exercise complete control over his products to the exclusion of all else.  Much to the dismay of other product teams within Microsoft that were used to a culture of collaboration, Sinofsky's actions proved to be divisive.  A rift that's expressed itself with similar looking but largely incompatible products under the Windows 8 banner.

His departure isn't a reflection of the success of Windows 8, rather it is a symptom of Microsoft's new product strategy.  Touch interfaces have proven themselves as more than a fad with the popularity of tablet devices and smartphones.  Even Apple's desktop staple, Mac OSX, has taken up second position to IOS devices like the IPad and Iphone.  Before Windows 8, Microsoft's only entry into this market was the lackluster Windows Phone and tablet editions.  Neither of which were high water marks for Microsoft's "Windows Everywhere" mantra championed by Steve Ballmer.

Windows may still be the centerpiece of the new strategy even going so far to add  Windows"panes" to the Microsoft logo but Windows development could no longer be done in isolation.  The vision for Microsoft was to have a unified experience across all devices from PC's to toasters.  Sinofsky's culture of separation ran counter to it.  Cloud services and hosted applications can help smooth over the rough spots but ultimately come up short of truly having Windows Everywhere.

There's no denying that touch interfaces are the future of computing.  Just as we wouldn't think of using a typewriter to compose our documents it won't be long till a swipe and tap are more commonplace than a mouse click.  Windows 8 tries to meet that future demand before consumers know they have it.  The fact that the vision borrows a page from Steve Jobs is no accident.  But where Jobs enforced a unity of vision throughout Apple, Sinofsky's focus was not so global when it came to Windows' place in Microsoft. 
Over the next year expect Microsoft to work hard to correct that error.
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