Anyone who was disgruntled about the unwanted changes in Windows 8 will be happy to discover that Microsoft is continuing to fix the most onerous problems it created for customers. And hang on, folks: They're not stopping with Windows 8.1.
Although the exact timing of these changes is still a bit hazy—my sources have used the term "next version of Windows," which I take to mean a coming revision we might call Windows 8.2—the nature of the changes is not. A new team at Microsoft that's responsible for overall OS development has clearly spent the past few months evaluating and then dropping most of the "my way or the highway" silliness that doomed the original Windows 8 release.
By necessity, internal politics is a big part of this story.
We might never know exactly why Steven Sinofsky left Microsoft a year ago, but we do know that his departure was both sudden and unexpected. And we suspect that he was ousted as part of the build-up to CEO Steve Ballmer's retirement announcement and issues regarding succession. Sinofsky was an interesting character, brilliant and driven, but also pedantic to a fault and unmerciful if he ever decided you were no use to him. Most of all he was divisive, and many Microsofties fell into one of two camps when it came to Sinofsky: Those whose careers were furthered by the man and those who thought he was scary and dangerous.
When Sinofsky left, Microsoft temporarily divided his duties between two people, Julie Larson-Green, a top Sinofsky lieutenant, and Tami Reller, who many feel should be in the running for Microsoft's CEO job. But when the software giant announced its massive reorganization this year, both Larson-Green and Reller were out, with the former heading off to a new Devices business and Reller being put in charge of overall marketing at the company.
If you're not closely following Microsoft's internal dramas, you might be wondering: Well, who's running Windows then? The answer to that question is Terry Myerson. And the next obvious question is: Who the heck is Terry Myerson?
It's a fair question. Mr. Myerson previously ran Microsoft's Windows Phone business, which doesn't seem like the type of post that would put the man in the running to lead all client OS development at Microsoft. But that's exactly what he's doing. And he's been talking about consolidating Windows 8.x, Windows RT, and Windows Phone into a much simpler lineup. I'm really starting to like this guy.
I'm not aware of a coup of this magnitude ever happening before at Microsoft, and I'd have to go back to Apple's purchase of Next—along with Steve Jobs—to find a tech industry example as dramatic. As Jobs and his Next cohorts made their presence known inside Apple, some Apple employees began wondering which company had purchased which. I suspect the remaining Sinofsky-era Windows employees are having similar thoughts right now.
And to be clear, there aren't many left. Quietly but quickly, Myerson has removed the remnants of the team Sinofsky put in place. Major Sinofsky-era players Jon DeVaan and Antoine Leblond were left without leadership positions when the reorg was announced. Dean Hachamovitch, who led Internet Explorer development for years, quietly left the IE organization in November to parts unknown. And now Ted Dworkin (Windows Store) and Jensen Harris (user experience) have been shifted to the Bing team. (Which could very well be Microsoft's version of Siberia.)
But Myerson isn't just removing those who backed Sinofsky's product vision for Windows. He's also trying to make sense of the mess they made. Although I happen to like Windows 8 just fine—Windows 8.1 is particularly good—there's no denying that this most divisive of Windows releases—a Frankenstein's monster that combines separate mobile and desktop platforms into a single, messy OS—came at exactly the wrong time for Microsoft. Google's Android and Apple iOS are offering simpler experiences for the masses, and Windows is getting left in the dust.
Microsoft made the first steps to fix these problems in Windows 8.1, and to be fair to Larson-Green and Reller, that release did happen on their watch. Windows 8.1 added back the Start button and made it easier for desktop users to stick within that environment and not be bothered by too much of the "Metro" mobile environment.
But it might not have gone far enough for many, and overall Windows 8.x usage share has been slow, about a third the rate at which Windows 7 was adopted. So now Myerson is making even more dramatic changes. Myerson is planning to unify Windows Phone and Windows RT into a single platform. He's planning a follow-up to Windows 8.1, code-named "Threshold," that will ship later next year and make the Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox One user experiences more similar. And now some Threshold details—heck, let's call it Windows 8.2—are starting to emerge.
As I noted in "Further Changes Coming in Windows 'Threshold'," I'm aware of a few of these changes. First, Microsoft will be making it possible to run "Metro" mobile apps—which are typically run full-screen like other mobile apps—in floating windows on the desktop, allowing them to blend more seamlessly with desktop applications. And second, the firm is bringing back the Start menu for those who still pine for it, completely undoing the mess made with the original Windows 8, which replaced this menu with a full-screen Metro-style Start screen.
I can't say that either change will affect me personally all that much, and I'm still trying to verify some other information I've received—what if Windows RT/Phone was free, for example?—but I know both will be a big deal for many users. The ultimate failure of Windows 8 wasn't that Microsoft embraced mobile technologies, it was that it did so without taking into account how poor this experience would be for the 1.5 billion people who use Windows on traditional PCs. And when those people complained about this forced change, they were labeled as whiners.
But they're not whiners, they're customers. And although Myerson's changes might be uncharitably called a step back, doing right by your customers is never the wrong strategy. Windows 8.1 was a step in the right direction. But it looks like Microsoft is on the threshold, if you will, of really doing the right thing.