This Week in Tablets: A modest proposal for Microsoft and Windows 8

November 17, 2012
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Thus far this Autumn, Microsoft and the Los Angeles Lakers are having the exact same kind of year.

Both created major shifts in strategy to succeed in a rapidly evolving competitive landscape.

Both are off to poor starts with their new products/teams, with “poor” easily being downgraded to “terrible” if viewed at the right angle.

Both have created so much competitive pressure to succeed NOW that each has fired the front guy, the man deemed most responsible for said poor start. The Lakers fired coach Mike Brown. Microsoft fired Windows’ evangelist Steve Sinofsky.

Fired or not fired, when a guy like Sinofsky parts ways shortly after the release of one of the most important products in corporate history, it’s a sure sign things aren’t going so well.

I can think of three plausible explanations for the split:

1. The a–hole theory. Sinofsky was/is as truly abrasive and antagonistic as reports have indicated (including a story by NYT’s Nick Wingfield that Sinofsky lost the respect of his peers).

If true, it seems likely there would have been some kind of breaking point. Perhaps it was simply that Windows 8 has had its share of launch problems? Or…perhaps…

2. Startgate. Is it possible that Sinofsky channeled his inner Gordon Ramsey in quashing the Windows Start button? I can imagine the internal conversations and controversy around the decision. I can also imagine Sinofsky being the guy who championed its elimination.

Fast forward to October 2012, at which point critics, consumers, and OEMS remain bitter about the paradigm shift. Goodbye, Mr. Sinofsky.

3. Unification theory. Sinofsky was so focused on the OS, and such an apparently divisive presence, that he was never able to bridge the gap between Microsoft’s hardware and software groups. (This calls to mind the classic org chart spoof to the right.)

Ballmer’s recent comments about the importance of the two working in tandem made me wonder if he wasn’t hinting at Sinofsky’s shortcomings.

Let’s go back in time to November 15, 2001. That’s when Microsoft released the original Xbox—as aggressive and competitive a pursuit of Nintendo and Sony that Surface is today. The Xbox project worked because it merged hardware, software, and partner relations, and the process left an indelible impact on Microsoft’s DNA.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the Surface RT tablet is a bust. It’s generated solid buzz and pleased the masses. However, we’re still waiting for the Surface Pro, and reports are beginning to indicate that we might be waiting for a while.

So now what?

I’ll say this much: Evil geniuses who succeed tend to not get fired that often. And when they do, the companies doing the firing often regret it.

However, in the case of the Xbox, the project’s founders—Robbie Bach and Seamus Blackley specifically—left Microsoft within a year of launch. So maybe there’s some kind of deeper dysfunction that Microsoft’s catch-at-all-cost pursuits brings out?

Whatever the case, wow, does Microsoft have problems.

The fact that the entire news media pounced on Steve Ballmer’s mistranslated quote about “modest sales” earlier in the week is a sure sign vultures are circling. Class-action lawsuits alleging that Microsoft is misleading Surface consumers around storage capacity is another.

At times, the software developer’s breakneck pursuit of the tablet era has felt needlessly myopic. In the act of trying to catch up to Apple and Google on the tablet front, the company has thrown its desktop OEM and enterprise partners to the wolves.

It’s hard to imagine Fortune 500 companies ever switching to Windows 8 en masse. Given what appears to be a tightening OS development cycle, it is theoretically possible and even likely that large and small corporate environments will never deploy Windows 8.

New PC buyers don’t have it so lucky. Even in touch environments, running a desktop powered by Windows 8 can be frustrating. I crave the Start button at least every hour.

Maybe in 3 years, when Windows 9 comes out, consumers will be primed enough around touch that enterprise environments will be ready for it.  

A modest proposal

This said, it feels like the Surface RT release is a winning move in the right direction. And, when Office for iPad releases, it will also be a winning move, even if Apple takes its 30% cut of each sale.

Which leaves us with the Start button—and my modest proposal for Microsoft around Windows 8, which is:

Put the Start button back into Windows.

Seriously. Microsoft needs to rush an SP1 update for desktop operating systems that that restores the Start button, or at least makes it an optional upgrade for desktop and laptop owners.

Again, this is only for the desktop version of the OS. One immediate benefit is that suddenly Microsoft will have immediate, tactile differentiation between the tablet version of its OS and the desktop version that reflects both platform's natures. Windows 8 RT? No Start button. Full-fledged Windows 8? Start button.

It will also allow the Surface tablet to rightfully shine on its own, without being pulled down by the desktop legacy of the same OS.

As an added bonus, Microsoft’s consumers who keep clicking the phantom button in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen will be happy.

Also: This way, even enterprise customers will be able to consider upgrading in order to take advantage of some of the operating system’s other forward-looking features.

This Week’s Winner: Samsung

Surprisingly, Queen Elizabeth II of England’s first tablet was not an iPad. Instead, A 10-inch Samsung Galaxy Note. As much as I want to say that the queen wanted the Note because of the stylus, I’m betting that Samsung just outbid and/or out-hustled Apple.

Regardless: First the King (LeBron James), and now the Queen have embraced Samsung devices. Sorry, couldn’t resist that joke.

This Week’s Loser: Sinofsky

Whatever happened, and whatever the cause, there’s no way you leave Microsoft weeks after the most important OS launch of your life and feel like you’re coming out on top.

This said, unless he’s the Type A of Type A personalities, I bet Sinofksy is sleeping like a hibernating bear this weekend. 


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