I wouldn’t want to be Microsoft today. In particular, I wouldn’t want to be Satya Nadella today.
Nearly everything they’ve tried has failed, but not completely:
- Sticking the word “Windows” at the end of things that weren’t Windows wasn’t a good idea.
- Sticking the word “Live” to things that are poor online services, or that are so-so desktop programs that you choose not to ship with Windows and that you end up cancelling wasn’t a good idea.
- Telling all Windows users to sod off and make way for the future and expecting everyone to throw away twenty years of muscle memory and their two primary methods of input wasn’t a good idea.
- Telling all developers to believe there’s good and unending money in making applications for the aforementioned platform and expecting everyone to be fine with a drop in almost every other developer technology wasn’t a good idea.
- Ruling the Windows team with an iron fist wasn’t always a good idea. It was highly effective in 7 compared to Vista. It was obstructive going from 7 to 8 and left everyone on the outside in silent chaos for years on end, something that has yet to subside.
Satya Nadella comes from the part of the company that has done good ideas continuously and by the boatload. From Azure, which caters to everyone. From their web technologies, where they’re still cleaning up after the braindead parts of the way too large, way too ambitious, lump-of-clay, largely-wrong ASP.NET platform, but where their new stuff competes just fine with whatever else is out there. Where open source isn’t something for representatives to scoff at but the default for any new projects unless there are extraordinary reasons not to, and where alternate solutions to a problem aren’t counter-revolutionary. Let’s assume that this department is just as rich with soul and pulse as with any other department outside Microsoft. (For some reason, I’m not making the same assumption about the whole of, let’s say, the BizTalk team.)
What does that give you in terms of leverage, in terms of an entrance to “save” the rest of the company? Not much. There are people who thought that Azure had to be called Windows Azure when it launched to bypass people’s bullshit filter, when what it did overwhelmingly was up the bar for acceptance and put people off their lunch. One of them, Ballmer, took 14 years and a business landscape slowly crumbling to figure out that he was standing in the way of progress and he still doesn’t know exactly how. Want to guess how many of the more than 100 000 employees have a similar outlook? How would you either convince them or move them or get rid of them without scaring the innumerable horses? And if you wouldn’t, would these fellow outdoor-voice-men roll their thumbs in an organization known for its many power bases and mano-a-mano divisional politics?
No one knows what will happen to Windows. The implementation of Metro seen today has left everyone scared of change and even if the desktop returns, the question will be for how long. Windows needs an OS 9-to-OS X-like clean start with a recognizable evolution and good enough backwards compatibility – not unlike the largest of the intra-version gaps, but from the technology up, too, not letting 1989′s compromises mar the fundaments of every application today. Windows Phone isn’t moving too many needles, although it’s gotten large enough to leave some broken hearts if it were to disappear tomorrow. Same with Bing.
Microsoft, for all the well-argued and accurate depictions of constitutional incompetence, slow wit and mind-numbingly dull products, has the brains and the wits within itself to do what it needs to do. But it is not a conclusion that will be reached overnight, and it will not be able to reach the right conclusion fast enough without divesting of all its chaff.
I am mentioning Satya’s old turf not just to display his roots, but because the Server & Tools division has done what was needed in a microcosm. Windows Server has server features that are relevant to those who want server nowadays (although whether anyone will pick Hyper-V over VMware is another story). The web development division has kept pace with the industry, including grueling cleanup of its earlier poor judgements, even as the IE team famously took a five year nap. (The Windows foundation and desktop looks to be in a similar nap currently.)
What needs to be done can be done, and Satya knows how that starts. But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be executing it.