As expected, Microsoft announced a leadership change in its Windows division late last week. The company moved long-time Microsoft Office executive Steven Sinofsky over to the Windows group and put him in charge of planning post-Vista versions of Windows. Although I've never met Mr. Sinofsky and his reputation suggests he's extremely capable, he's the wrong person to put in charge of Windows. In fact, this reshuffling simply proves that Microsoft hasn't learned a thing from the problems its Windows division has faced over the past several years.
Microsoft is currently in transition and still relies on its so-called cash cows, Windows and Office. Both are monolithic software entities that first arrived in the days when software was delivered on floppy disks and have been evolving ever since. Microsoft has never rewritten Office from scratch, and it rewrote Windows from scratch just once, back in the early 1990s when it started the Windows NT project. Since then, both Office and Windows have added piles of features--and the source code necessary to implement them--on top of applications that are both now decades old.
The corporate culture that permitted this state of affairs to develop and continue persists at Microsoft today because the company's top-level leaders, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, have been there so long. Gates and Ballmer are the leadership team that cemented Windows and Office as the leaders of their respective markets, but they're also the ones who committed the antitrust blunders that continue to trip up the company today.
But what about Steven Sinofsky? Mr. Sinofsky joined Microsoft in the mid-1990s when the Office Product Unit was first formed, and he's been described as a faithful and trusted lieutenant of Bill Gates. For this reason, he is absolutely the wrong person to lead any attempt to turn Windows around. Instead, Microsoft should look for new ideas and new blood. Microsoft needs new leadership in its Windows Division, and one opportunity to find that leadership comes from other groups within the company. Two of its businesses still practice the rapid-fire innovation that used to drive all of Microsoft: the MSN and Xbox teams.
MSN as it stands today has basically morphed into Windows Live and been subsumed by Windows itself, which is a bit odd when you consider that the people who made MSN so successful weren't called on to help take Windows to the next level. Surely, Blake Irving, David Cole, Yusuf Mehdi, or any of the others who played crucial roles in MSN's successes over the past few years could have been tapped to help transform Windows. Instead, Microsoft has essentially made MSN a sub-unit of Windows and placed a former Office executive in charge of the future of both groups.
Meanwhile, the Xbox team has done a tremendous job of taking Microsoft's traditional strength of developing great platforms that excite users, developers, and partners and applying that strength to a completely new market. Even the company's mobile hardware teams, which have been trying to do something similar for far longer, have been less successful at generating buzz than has the Xbox team. Compare the buzz generated by the Xbox team's work to that of Windows Vista, where several years of delays have almost completely sapped the product of any excitement that might have otherwise accompanied its release.
In short, I have little doubt that Mr. Sinofsky will re-energize Windows development, at least temporarily, as Brian Valentine did six years ago when Windows 2000 threatened to derail. But the shuffling of executives can go only so far, as evidenced by Valentine's descent into comedic internal videos and PR stunts. The real problems with Windows still exist: The team making the product is too big, too slow, and completely unable to understand that the world has changed. The team seems not to realize that its past successes are no longer enough to ensure the future of its product.
The folks at MSN and, to a lesser extent, at Xbox, understand the new world order. It's not clear that Sinofsky understands any better the problems the Windows division faces than he did the problems the Office division had. After all, this is the man who killed Net Docs, an attempt to bring office productivity to the Web several years ago. That's right, he snuffed out exactly the kind of software services that Microsoft is now promoting with Windows Live, and he did so not because it had no merit but because it threatened his Office cash cow. I wish Sinofsky all the best. But I'm afraid that Microsoft is simply putting on appearances and not getting to the root of its problems.