With Steven Sinofsky swept out of Microsoft in an unexpected wave of change, his fans and detractors are scrambling to shout down each other and assign blame -- or praise -- for his sudden departure. But I’d hate to see Mr. Sinofsky’s retreat overshadow what I feel to be Microsoft’s very real and most pressing general issue, one that needs to be fixed no matter who runs Windows or the rest of Microsoft. You see, the erstwhile software giant has a problem. It simply doesn’t know how to finish the job. (See also, "For Windows 8, a Familiar Launch Story.")
To date, the Microsoft culture has rewarded shipping a product or product version above all else, and if that product happens to be attached to some huge revenue stream, all the better. The problem is that no software products and services are perfect and bug free. And the dark half of that Microsoft culture is that there’s little if any reward for those whose job it is to set things right.
In the old days, you could see this dichotomy most clearly in how Microsoft developed and then serviced Windows. The folks who created a new Windows version were heroes within the company and could do no wrong. But once that Windows version actually shipped -- the process we all know as its release to manufacturing, or RTM -- the code was unceremoniously handed off to the B-team, the folks responsible for servicing Windows. These folks weren’t heroes at all. They were almost non-existent as far as the rest of the company was concerned.
If it’s not obvious, this now old-fashioned way of developing products is problematic for many reasons, but the key issue from my perspective is that it means the creation process ends the second a product is complete: Any new features will need to wait for the next version. Microsoft somewhat overcame this issue by adding some new features to subsequent service packs, but today the system has been completely overhauled and I’ve been told that even service packs are obsolete in this new services-based world we live in. Microsoft’s products are now on a rolling schedule; they can and often will be updated over time.
In theory, I like this approach -- and it’s certainly worked wonders in actual online services (e.g.,, Windows Intune, Windows Azure) -- where they have in fact been updated over time. Whether locally installed end-user software such as Windows and Office can successful be updated this way is debatable, but we’ll see, since that’s the plan.
This type of updating also makes a product like Windows 8 possible. I’ve argued before that Windows 8 is wonderful but incomplete. But that also means it’s the poster child for rolling updates. Windows 8 is particularly unpolished, and lacking a level of refinement one should expect from a core Microsoft product, so it’s more in need of updating than any product since Windows Vista. That such an important and high-profile product was developed in a vacuum, as was Windows 8, and created without regard to user complaints and feedback, is, I think, deplorable. Rolling updates -- and possibly, the end of Mr. Sinofsky’s dictatorial reign -- can help right this wrong.
The only worry I still have concerns that Microsoft culture I mentioned. Here, nothing has changed: There’s no real reward for tweaking an existing product, adding that missing feature, or fixing the tiny incomplete bits. If the past is any indication, work on Windows 8’s successor began months ago, and you have to think that the A-team that foisted Metro and the Start screen on us has moved right along to this next milestone and will have little to do with fixing the previous release. If that’s true, Microsoft hasn’t learned a thing. I’d like to see the team responsible for this mess spend the next three years cleaning it up. It’s time the creators at Microsoft took a step back and finished the job.
The first thing they might try -- and I know this sounds obvious, but the truth is, they’ve spent the past six years doing nothing like this -- is to ask their customers what they want. Dictating what customers want worked for Apple for many years because Steve Jobs was a design savant and because the consumer market has starkly different concerns than the business market. Apple’s products have also historically done a few things really well, not a lot of things half-heartedly.
Microsoft is no Apple. Sorry.
Too, Microsoft might be surprised to discover that consumers and business want different things from Windows. Hmmm. Maybe this product needs to be split up accordingly, with a Metro-less business version that offers only the wonderful new desktop updates in Windows 8. You won’t know until you start asking questions.
I know, I’m just preaching common sense. But looking in from the outside, that’s what I see missing in Redmond, and I think it’s time for a deeper cultural shift inside the company. Ousting Sinofsky was a radical move, but it was just a start. Microsoft needs to be a company that gets the fit and finish right. It needs to embrace and reward the finishers before it starts creating again.