In 2007, Microsoft introduces a new version of Windows called Vista, a grand name for what turns out to be an embarrassing dud. (Memories of my first and determining interaction with Vista can be found here.)
Steven Sinofsky, once a Bill Gates technical assistant and, at the time, head of Microsoft Office development, is given a shovel (and a pad of pink slips) and told to clean the stables. To create a new, respectable version of Windows in a mere 30 months will require great discipline, a refusal to compromise, the rejection of distracting advice, relentless attention to the schedule, as well as the merciless pruning of features and people who get in the way. Sinofsky had it all: superb technical skills, the dogged drive of a rassar, and the political will to mow down the obstacles.
In July 2009, Microsoft unveils Windows 7, a product widely acclaimed as absolving Vista's sins, and Sinofsky is promoted to president of the Windows division, a title parsimoniously bestowed.
Sinofsky immediately begins work on the next version of Windows, following his proven strategy of adding solid, well-defined details while maintaining backwards compatibility and avoiding the rat trap of "feature creep". But something happens along the way: In early 2010, the iPad comes out. Although the device is initially misunderstood by Microsoft -- Steve Ballmer speaks of "slates and tablets and blah blah blah" -- it doesn't take long for the Redmond company to realize that it needs an answer, it needs to defend its PC empire against the interloping tablet that has been so warmly embraced by the public.
The company changes course and Sinofsky gets a new mission: Windows 8 isn't going to be a mere clean-up job, it's not an "embrace and extend" improvement, but a new ''reimagined" Windows, a PC Plus that will straddle the PC and tablet worlds. The new OS will provide a radically new look-and-feel, a touch-screen interface in addition to a keyboard and mouse (or trackpad), and it will stray from the comfy x86 monogamy to also work on ARM processors.
A little over three years later, right after delivering Windows 8, Sinofsky is abruptly sacked.(Excuse me, he's "amicably" sacked… by his own "personal and private" choice).
Windows 8, Windows RT, and the Surface tablet are now on full display, as are the reviews -- and they're not pretty. As summarized in this June 2012 Business Insider piece, the pundits were concerned and baffled right from the start:
"Worst of all, the traditional desktop is buried -- it's just another Metro app -- but there are still some things you can only do from the desktop, and some only from Metro." (Matt Rosoff)
"In my time with Windows 8, I've felt almost totally at sea -- confused, paralyzed, angry, and ultimately resigned to the pain of having to alter the way I do most of my work." (Farhad Manjoo)
"Windows 8 looks to me to be an unmitigated disaster that could decidedly hurt the company and its future... The real problem is that it is both unusable and annoying." (John Dvorak)
Perhaps these were simply hasty judgments meant to capture eyeballs, maybe customers would ignore the critics and embrace Windows 8. But no. Five months later, Paul Thurrott, the author of the respected Windows Supersite blog, gives us this post:
"Sales of Windows 8 PCs are well below Microsoft's internal projections and have been described inside the company as disappointing."
As head of HP's Personal Systems Group (PCs and printers, a $55B/year business), Todd Bradley's opinion of Microsoft's latest creations carries considerable weight. Last week, in a long CITEworld interview, Bradley wasn't impressed:
"I'd hardly call Surface competition.
CITEworld: Why not?
TB: One, very limited distribution. It tends to be slow and a little kludgey as you use it. I just don't think it's competitive. It's expensive. Holistically, the press has made a bigger deal out of Surface than what the world has chosen to believe."
As reported two weeks ago, I quickly encountered Windows 8's split personality when I tried to use my new Surface, but I wanted the bigger picture.
Was Windows 8 running on a PC -- Microsoft's home turf -- really an "unmitigated disaster"? I head over to the big Microsoft Store in the Stanford Shopping Center to buy the full version of the new OS -- and they don't have it. The upgrade version, yes, but no copies of the "System Builder" DVD that you need for a complete, from-scratch installation. Curious.
I head back home, order a copy from Amazon, buy an additional license from Microsoft for my second machine, and two days later I'm in business. The installation process is flawless (one with VMware Fusion, the other with Parallels), but things quickly go downhill. The problems I had with the Surface are just as distracting and frustrating on a PC: One moment you're in the new, elegant, and, yes, reimagined User Interface, the next moment you're foraging in the old Windows 7 Desktop. And, of course, existing Office apps have no place in the new UI.
It's no wonder that customers aren't keen to buy Windows 8. As a recent survey shows, "about one-third of Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP users who are ready to buy a new personal computer say they intend to switch to an Apple product."
According to the Thurrott post mentioned earlier, the inside story is that Sinofsky was let go because of his "divisiveness", that his departure isn't a consequence of Window 8's poor numbers. But if we imagine a different reality, one in which Sinofsky stands before a big Mission Accomplished banner, where critics rave about the beauty, harmony, and impeccable polish of a Windows 8 that runs flawlessly on PCs, laptops, tablets, and Surface-like hybrids...do we think for a moment Ballmer would have shown Sinofsky the door?
I think the real story behind Sinofsky's removal contains elements of both personality and (Windows 8) performance. It's no secret that Sinofsky made a lot of enemies while he pulled off a not-so-minor miracle with Windows 7. As a reward for his accomplishment, he was given a much more difficult assignment. Windows 8 had become a 21-blade Swiss Army knife: a great list of features on paper, dubious usability in practice. Add the need to adapt the operating system and the sacrosanct (and golden goose) Office applications to the new ARM processor and you end up with a Mission Impossible.
The same traits that made Sinofsky an extremely successful turnaround artist after the Vista mess -- his monomaniacal pursuit of a clear goal -- became liabilities in this reimagined world. He slipped and fell, the enemies saw their chance, the bayonets came out. Even supremely gifted [redacted] have a sell-by date.
Of course, none of this says anything about who came up with the mission. Was it Ballmer's idea or Sinofsky's? Microsoft isn't talking.
Now let's turn to Apple. The "recomplicated" Windows hands the Cupertino company an intriguing opportunity. They can capitalize on Microsoft's misstep, extend a welcoming hand to the Windows users who intend to switch to Apple, and make the iPad the sine qua non of what a Post-PC device should be. (I use the "Post-PC" moniker for lack of a better one. For me, it doesn't stand for the end of the PC but for its broadening into three instances: classic, tablet, smartphone.)
From the beginning, the iPad, designed to be a new genre, not a derivative, came with limitations. Yes, you could do some productivity work, but iOS's lack of multi-tasking, a favorite whipping boy of the critics, made it difficult. To be sure, the OS supported concurrent activities inside the device, but running several applications at the same time was a no-no. The processor couldn't handle it and, even if it could have, battery life would have been terrible.
So whether it was divine inspiration or simply a bowing to necessity, Apple shunned the temptation to make a PC-only-smaller, and created a whole new genre of personal computers. Microsoft couldn't resist and gave us Windows Mobile with a Start button.
Almost five years have elapsed since the birth of iOS. (We'll give a quick but deep hat tip to its ferocious and now deposed champion, Scott Forstall, and leave the discussion of his own exit for a future Monday Note.) With the latest iPad hardware, we have a fast processor and there are even faster ones in the making. Does the more muscular hardware and road-tested OS portend a future that supports the running of two applications side-by-side in a split-screen arrangement? Or perhaps a slidebar that reveals and hides the second app.
This isn't exactly an original idea: Samsung just released a firmware update providing a split-screen multitasking view. And, of course, as explained here, the Snap feature in Windows 8 provides a neat way to run two apps side-by-side on a laptop or tablet.
Today, preparing a Keynote document that incorporates elements from other apps requires clumsy mental and physical gymnastics. Having access to the source and destination documents at the same time would be a welcome relief and a boost to business uses.
There are other quirks. You can edit a Mac-originated Pages or Numbers document on your iPad, but no such joy awaits users of Apple's well-loved Preview. Upload a Preview PDF into iCloud from your MacBook and then grab your iPad and see if you can find it... No, you need to use DropBox or the (excellent) Microsoft SkyDrive. (One "explanation" for this state of affairs is the strong security that pervades iOS. Inter-application communication can open backdoors to malware, which is still quite rare in iOS. But if it can be done for Pages and other iWork apps…)
Now that all OS X and iOS software is under one hat, Craig Federighi's, perhaps we can expect these workflow speed bumps to be ironed out. Multiple concurrent applications, a document store that's common to all apps... This is Apple's opportunity: Stick to its guns, keep laptops and tablets clearly distinct, but make iPads easier to love by business users. The comparison between a worst-of-both-worlds Surface hybrid and the iPad would be no contest. iPad mini for media consumption, everywhere; iPad for business and everything else.
Apple can finish the job Sinofsky started.