Microsoft’s Obstacles Are Our Obstacles

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The Director of the Business Information Technology Services Department asked us: Who does what we do well? After thinking about this question, I have tried to refocus the question by thinking about what obstacles we have? Who overcomes those obstacles well? My answer is Microsoft.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, does not consider Microsoft as part of the “Gang of Four”; Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. These are the tech companies he feels are driving growth and innovation.

Considering the dominance Microsoft had in the previous decade, and in many ways still holds, they have obstacles which their competitors don’t. Microsoft, more than any other technology company, has to manage a wide range of legacy products and they need to maintain compatibility with those products while staying innovative and ahead of the bleeding edge. Microsoft needs to keep one foot solidly planted in their current customers needs, but they cannot allow other firms to dictate their future.

Many of Microsoft’s products date back to an era when being in a connected environment was optional and client-side applications ruled the day. Now virtually all devices are connected all the time. Of the “Gang of Four”, only Apple provides a platform which could be useful in a disconnected world. The “Gang of Four” has a major advantage over Microsoft in that their businesses can be more easily managed server-side. For example, Facebook recently added a program called deals which offers coupons and online offers. No client-side changes needed to be made. End users did not need to purchase or install new software.

While Microsoft had a good jump on web-based email with it’s Hotmail service, it has been criticized for being late to the game, failing to capitalize or loosing ground in the mobile OS, mobile hardware, tablets, online documents, search, browser and virtual environment spaces. Microsoft continues to be successful in desktop operating systems, office software suites, Sharepoint, Exchange, development tools, databases. The only space they have recently made substantial inroads into is with their video gaming system, XBOX. I believe their success with XBOX is because this was a new environment for Microsoft which wasn’t expected to integrate with their legacy products. This is much the same environment in which the “Gang of Four” compete.

At the Port of San Diego we have similar issues. We have a mature IT landscape where we have made significant investments in solutions from Novell, Cisco, SAP, Esri and OpenText Hummingbird. We also have mature coworkers and clients (AKA Port employees) who have a clear and often resolute understanding of how things (should) work. More than a few times I have encountered situations where clients have requested a system only to learn that they will need to be the source of the authoritative data. For example, Joomla separates web design from content. When it is explained that anyone can share information across the Port through Joomla, suddenly the solution isn’t quite as appealing; responsibility which they thought would be provided for them falls into their lap.

On June 1st, 2011 Steven Sinofsky, President of Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live Division, and Julie Larson-Green, Corporate Vice President of Windows Experience, sat down with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher from the Wall Street Journal to discuss the future of Windows, in particular the next incarnation of the OS, currently known as Windows 8. The most visible changes from Windows7 is a reorganization of the graphical user interface (GUI) to leverage the use of tiles, instead of familiar windows. Tiles allow key information from within an application to be displayed outside the application. The other major change is that Windows 8 will be the same across all form factors. Everything from 8 inch displays to wall size displays, touch screen interface to any combination of peripherals and accessories. Click here to watch the full video.

The reason why this conversation is important is not because new features are coming to Windows. The new functionality only provides a context to discuss much more consequential changes in the IT world. This conversation is important because Microsoft needs to engage people to invest in the new technology while providing a succession plan for it’s legacy products which are currently key components to their customers business.

Unexpectedly, this larger and more important concept seemed to be well over the Wall Street Journal host’s head. Throughout the interview Walt Mossberg kept voicing shortsighted comments along the lines of; just make it pretty like Apple does. He didn’t seem to understand basic concepts like the difference between Windows and Office or the role of a desktop PC vs a server in a traditional IT landscape. His amateur perspective is useful because this is how end-users\clients\employees react to our choices. His uneducated, yet bombastic, attitude also resembles personalities and perspectives we encounter. His frustration mirrors a non-technically savvy Port employee’s frustration. Microsoft’s obstacles are our obstacles.

Throughout the conversation Walt Mossberg kept pushing Steven Sinofsky to answer why Windows 8 will be built upon future versions of Windows. Why is Microsoft so committed to bulky and sluggish Windows? Why not start from scratch? Why not expand Windows Phone OS to tablets, as Apple has done, instead of making the desktop OS work on tablets as well? Below are a few key points which show how Microsoft makes the decision to either keep one foot in the legacy world by making their current functionality forward compatible and\or completely transition out of a legacy product and into a new tool.

On the decision to build Windows OS to include tablets
WM: It is not the strategy which has been followed by your two bigger competitors, Google and Apple. Who felt like they needed to have a … well Google didn’t have a legacy computer OS, and Apple did.

SS: Well they [Google] built one.

WM: They built one. But they built it for phones and tablets.

SS: And then they went and built their own legacy OS.

WM: Eric [Schmidt] was explaining. Now you didn’t listen. He said one’s for typing and ones for touching.

SS: And you bought that?

WM: I am just saying what he [Eric Schmidt] said. Being a reporter. Apple took a computer OS and I guess stripped it down to some extent then added more stuff back into it, but tried to customize something. They didn’t move the Mac OS to the iphone and the ipad. You are taking a different approach. Why? You just explained why you could do it. Why would you want to do it? Why is it a better thing for consumers?

SS: It’s better because of all of the things Windows can bring with it.

WM: Here’s were I need to be snarky and say mean things. Like viruses and craplets and all the things people get on their Windows computers.

SS: Or printing, or using solid state storage really well or external hard drives

WM: The other guys use solid state storage pretty well.

SS: Without wierdness and stuff like that. What we tried to do with Windows 8 was reimagine how to work with a PC. Really think from the chip all the way to the user interface what it is we could do different. Not just get touch or a slate or a tablet made but to really think about the broad range of scenarios and really reimagine what we wanted to do with Windows. You could sort of say we colored outside the lines in terms of how we built this release. So we are excited to talk about it because we think it is a different approach. Maybe it is because we are not in the Gang. We chose a different avenue. We have a real customer and engineering scenario things we thought about. We have an approach that is different but also builds on the value of 400 million PC that will be probably be sold in the year we release this product. That is a big number. What will happen is all of a sudden, all of those PCs accrue all the benefits of the work that we are doing.

WM: So both tablets and PCs, laptops, desktops, whatever. All of this work, all of this coloring outside the lines spreads across all the …

SS: Right. What we’ve done is look from the ground up how to rethink how you interact with Windows. The kind of programs you can run. How you get those programs. All of that work and really bring it. A word we used a lot in developing it is “modern.” How to think about it in a different way that really solves a bunch of the things that people see, or say they see, solved in an ipad. I think we can do that and bring with it all of these benefits you have.

WM: Every program that runs on desktop windows will run on ..

SS: It’s Windows. Windows is there. Everything that runs on Windows7, any device you can plug into a Windows machine. Everything just runs.

When pushed about reinventing Microsoft Office
WM: So why didn’t the Office … Seriously. If you’re really going to this bold new, color-outside-the-lines design, and it’s part of your whole design ethos and design family, why didn’t the Office team write or rewrite Office for that kind of approach?

LG: Well. They may do something … in the future. But we don’t think people should have to give up everything they know and love to get to a more mobile form factor.

More pushing about Microsoft Office on Tablets
KS: And if you’re looking for the whole experience, the idea (that) everything’s changed, I was sort of looking at this very beautiful screen and went, uck, the ugly old house if back, you know? Why not switch the whole thing? … I mean, this is a whole different look. Because Bing fits into this nicely. Why not do everything?

LG: There’s a lot of utility in existing Office around running macros and doing things that take keyboard intensive time, and I’m sure that the Office team will look at what we’re doing…

ARM Hardware Support Changes
Question from Audience: Do you have a strategy for existing Intel applications as they move to ARM?

SS: On our ARM machines … we are not going to introduce a virtualization model and a way to run old x86 software. That turns out to be technically really challenging and we decided the experience we could deliver with modern applications all written in HTML5 and Javascript … would probably yield a better experience over time.

Comparison to Mistakes by IBM in 1981
Question from Audience [Tim O’Reily]: I want to return to the question of the Gang of Four in a particular way. First off, I really like the UI that you are showing but it strikes me that one of the big differences between what you are showing and the Gang of Four is that a big part of what they have are applications in which the data is what’s driving things and in particular network effects in data seems to be what makes Google and Facebook and Apple and Amazon such interesting dynamic companies. They are harnessing billions of people to build a service that actually gets literally better the more people use them. Now Microsoft has services of that nature but they don’t seem to be featured in what you are doing. I am wondering if you are making the same mistake that IBM made back in 1981 when they thought hey, this is all about hardware and you guys are thinking oh this is all about software and you are not integrating Microsoft’s data assets into the core of your OS.

I guess the question is,  to what extent are they informing the product design. It would be really fabulous, it seems to me, if you guys actually thought how to show that and make that part of your story so that people understand that that is actually what makes it a modern platform not having a touchscreen.

LG: I showed a few of the elements on how we are rethinking. I didn’t show notifications or how applications talk to each other and get information from each other to make the experience better, but the whole start screen being alive and being connected from the get go without having to go to your desktop then decide where you want to go today. Everything is just there in front of you. When we are done, and we can show the full version of Windows, those applications and things will be part of the experience. All the services behind it. We work very closely with that team.

SS: We are the Windows and Windows live team so we have Hotmail and Messenger all part of one team. We just aren’t on that today.

I want to point out Microsoft did not take the same approach to all topics. They are going to be backward compatible with Office and other applications, but they are not going to implement a virtualization model on ARM processors. At Windows 8 they decided to go distinctly different directions on these 2 topics. I am sure these concepts were explored ad nauseam in Redmond.

Unfortunately, Microsoft is in the uncomfortable position of meeting both the shallow expectations of Walt Mossberg (just give him a nicer monitor and install Rainmeter with the Omnimo 4 skin – he won’t know the difference) and the relevant and profound expectations of Tim O’Reily all while supporting a wide range of mission critical legacy systems. The “Gang of Four’s” advantage is that they simply don’t come with baggage. Is the lesson to leverage our investments or start afresh? The answer for both the Port of San Diego and Microsoft us is clear as mud.

WhatTheHeckIsWrongWithPeople Zen

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