Turmoil at Microsoft; implications for Windows users

Woody Leonhard

Microsoft in general and the Windows group in particular have gone through enormous changes within the past year. All the key Windows 8 players are out.

Most of us can only speculate on the reasons for the massive turnover, but one point remains clear: under new management, Windows is in for changes.

Reflecting on the Windows 8 disaster

As you probably know, I am not one of Windows 8’s biggest fans. And that opinion comes from long experience with the OS. I wrote a thousand-page book about Windows 8 and another thousand-page tome about Windows 8.1. I’ve used Win8 all day, every day, for almost two years.

Based on that experience, I can’t recommend Windows 8 to experienced Windows users — unless they’re springing for a new touch-capable tablet or they really want to try something quite different from classic Windows. In truth, the vast majority of mouse-and-keyboard Windows users I know are still better served with Windows 7.

I don’t think relatively inexperienced Windows users are well served by Win8, either. (Yes, of the approximately 1.4 billion Windows users on the planet, there are a few novice Windows users left.) Those who know a little bit about Windows often get hog-tied trying to figure out Metro; those who don’t know anything about Windows but are comfortable with their smartphones are usually better off with an iPad or an Android tablet — in my not-so-humble opinion.

You might not agree with my assessment of Windows, but again: I speak from long experience and many discussions with fellow Windows users. It’s clear to me that Microsoft’s board of directors is staring up at a sword of Damocles 8.0 — and unwilling to let it fall without a fight.

Microsoft’s dilemma over the direction of Windows 8 isn’t confined strictly to Windows. There are numerous emerging threats to the Windows hegemony, such as the many excellent alternatives that use a heavy helping of cloud. But the Jekyll-and-Hyde design of Windows 8 certainly didn’t help. I think Apple’s Tim Cook got it right: “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator,” but it won’t please users.

Those factors — the tepid (to be generous) interest in Windows 8 and the myriad extraneous forces — virtually guaranteed a major shakeup in Microsoft. Nearly everybody in the Windows management chain, all the way up to the top of the company, is now gone. And though we might think of the shakeup as a deserved and needed repudiation of Windows 8 (I liken it to a rejected transplant), it also presents some exciting new possibilities. I’m actually optimistic that the next Windows will be considerably better than Win8. Why? The new Windows handlers know their stuff.

The folks who brought us Windows 8

It’s easy to forget that the same management team that built Windows 8 also made Windows 7. (I’m sure I’m far from alone in my belief that Win7 is the best Windows ever.) I use the term “management team” deliberately; for the most part, the same five people have worked together from Office 95 days to Windows 8. That’s about a century or two in Internet years.

Former Windows Division president Steve Sinofsky led the bunch. (A personal disclaimer here: I’ve had run-ins with Sinofsky since Office days, and he’s not one of my favorite characters. The feeling is probably mutual.) He’s a brilliant software guy and possibly one of the best project managers of all time. In the wake of the Vista debacle, Steve and his group turned around the growing doubt that Microsoft could produce a viable version of Windows — an astounding achievement.

And then came Windows 8. Few know exactly what happened, but in November 2012, less than a month after Win8’s general release, Sinofsky was suddenly out of Microsoft. (Steve won’t say; he’s bound, as reported in a Digital Trends story, by a U.S. $14 million retirement agreement that precludes him from making “disparaging statements” about Microsoft.)

I think that Steve tried to pull the Windows Phone effort into the Windows 8 fold and was thwarted. Back in December 2011, while the Windows 8 development effort was in full swing, Steve Ballmer removed the widely respected Andy Lees from his post as president of Windows Mobile (see InfoWorld story) and replaced him with young turk Terry Myerson.

Ultimately, Myerson never joined the Windows 8 effort. He and the Windows Phone team kept their heads down and honed Windows Phone 7, which doesn’t look or act anything like Windows 8.

For whatever reason, Sinofsky’s departure was abrupt. Some people think he jumped; others think he was pushed. As I reported in an InfoWorld story, my theory is that he expected to parlay the success of Windows 8 into a larger division that included Windows Phone — and then replace Ballmer as the next CEO of Microsoft. Unfortunately for Sinofsky, things did not go as expected.

Now, the rest of the Office 95-to-Windows 8 management crew (more or less) has scattered.

Julie Larson-Green — responsible for the infamous Office ribbon and Windows 8’s Modern UI — took over for Sinofsky briefly after his departure. She then spent seven months in charge of the Devices and Studios group, where she oversaw the Xbox, Surface, sundry additional devices, and Microsoft’s studio recording efforts.

Earlier this week, Mary Jo Foley revealed in a ZDNet article that Stephen Elop, who returns to Microsoft from Nokia later this year, will bump Larson-Green out of her seat. Larson-Green’s new position will be chief experience officer of the My Life & Work team in the Application and Services Group, where she’s in charge of unifying the experiences in Skype, Bing, and OneDrive. You could say that’s, uh, quite a change from running Windows development.

Jensen Harris, who worked for Larson-Green and was directly responsible for the Office ribbon and much of the Modern user interface, has moved to the Bing team — so I’m told. I haven’t heard much from him lately.

Jon DeVaan officially left Microsoft at the beginning of this year. For nearly 30 years, he built the plumbing that holds Office and Windows together. Most recently, he was in charge of the Core Operating Systems Division. DeVaan is a legendary software engineer and software-engineering manager. There are no reports on his current endeavors.

Similarly, Grant George left Microsoft at the beginning of 2014. He’s been a bug catcher almost as long as there’ve been bugs. He’s now officially retired.

Antoine Leblond stayed behind to lead the Office development team when the rest of the group left, then later became a very visible member of the Windows 8/8.1 effort, frequently posting blogs about the new software. He (or someone posting for him) has recently posted fluff pieces about Windows 8. Times have changed.

As we all know, Steve Ballmer retired as Microsoft CEO, but he keeps a foot in the door as an MS director. Opinions vary as to how much of his departure was push and how much was shove; it’s likely that the individuals involved have, uh, different perceptions.

Sturm und Drang: The crew that’s now in place

I’ve been watching Microsoft, Windows, and Office for many, many years. I’ve never seen any change as pronounced as the one that plunked Terry Myerson into the Windows hot seat.

At least organizationally — and perhaps personally — Myerson was ignored, neglected, and hung out to dry during the Sinofsky years. The Win8 team developed an entire “mobile” Windows programming interface — the WinRT API — apparently with little more than a nod to Microsoft’s official mobile team. Rumors had it that Windows 8, née Sinofsky, was going to absorb Windows Phone. It never happened — quite the contrary, in fact.

With Sinofsky’s departure, Larson-Green took charge of the Windows division. It was a short stint. In July 2013, Ballmer appointed Myerson to lead the entire Windows effort: he was the small fish that swallowed the much bigger fish. Myerson’s oversized mandate includes Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox software, and at least some parts of Internet Explorer.

Myerson and crew are currently building the next version of Windows. (We’ll call it Windows 9, for lack of a more creative name.) He has some serious engineering and management chops. He founded Intersé Corp., which he sold to Microsoft in 1997, reportedly pocketing $16.5 million in Microsoft stock in the deal. He took over the Microsoft Exchange effort in 2001 and led that group until becoming head of mobile engineering in 2008. Myerson killed Windows Mobile in late 2008, replacing it with the built-from-scratch Windows Phone. As you might imagine, he wasn’t happy when Sinofsky charged ahead with his own vision of mobile Windows.

Myerson has assembled a stellar array of managers: Joe Belfiore, now in charge of Windows for phones, tablets, and PCs, has knocked around various Microsoft departments since 1990. Xbox veteran Marc Whitten is in charge of Xbox software. Henry Sanders was on the Windows Phone team and is a former Windows Core Operating System Division (COSD) developer under DeVaan. He’s now the new OS development chief. David Treadwell, also from the Xbox team (and a COSD veteran) is in charge of product management. Two Windows team holdovers remain: performance specialist Mike Fortin takes over testing, and former Windows Live deputy Chris Jones stays on as the manager of services.

Dean Hachamovitch was in charge of Internet Explorer. He left the IE team in November 2013, and no successor has been announced. According to a Nov. 12, 2013, The Verge story, it appears that Myerson is breaking off responsibilities for IE and assigning at least some of the job to Belfiore.

In summary, the new Windows team isn’t just mobile-savvy — by and large, they’re mobile veterans. There’s a bit of old-fashioned Windows depth, but Phone and Xbox dominate. That’s a very important point to remember when you look at Windows’ future.

I also note in passing that Satya Nadella, the new Microsoft CEO, was in charge of Bing less than three years ago. So the new heavy hitters know both mobile and the cloud — arguably two of the blind spots among their predecessors.

Those are the people who are fashioning the next step for Windows. Given their history and expertise, I’m bullish on Windows 9.

What the changes mean for Windows customers

During the Sinofsky reign, most Windows pundits rarely heard a peep out of the development trenches. For whatever reason, the Windows development team was terrified of leaking anything about anything. Fortunately, that atmosphere might be changing. We’re seeing and hearing more about what the Windows team is thinking and doing.

There are no guarantees that the next version of Windows will be as successful as Windows 7. I’ve heard nothing for attribution, but the tea leaves I’ve seen leave me with some hope.

We do know that Microsoft is trying to bring two disparate programming interfaces — Metro’s WinRT API and the Windows Phone Runtime API — closer together. Late last week, a WinBeta story ran leaked screen shots that show apps capable of running under both Windows RT (and thus the Metro side of Windows 8/8.1) and the as-yet-unreleased Windows Phone 8.1. There are still many hurdles to overcome. Even if Myerson meets his goals, there will reportedly be only an “80 percent code overlap” between the two interfaces. However, that Myerson is drawing together the pieces Sinofsky pulled apart speaks volumes.

Sooner or later, developers will be able to build apps that run on both Windows Phone and the, er, Windows version of Windows. Imagine that.

Of greater interest to mouse-and-keyboard Windows users: It appears that Microsoft is building three different versions of Windows, with a Spring 2015 delivery. As ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley reports, the new Windows effort — code-named “Threshold” — consists of three parts:

A “Modern” consumer version of Windows, available only via the Windows Store, will run on hardware that we would currently identify as phones, tablets, phablets, and maybe even ultrabooks. There’s lots of speculation about whether Windows 9 “Mod” will run only on ARM-equipped devices (as is currently the case with Windows RT) or on both ARM and Intel hardware. Presumably, it’ll be touch-friendly.

A traditional consumer version will be suited more for mouse/keyboard users. It will be regularly updated through the Windows Store. Based on Foley’s description, it isn’t clear whether the traditional consumer version will include a Metro side similar to the current Windows 8/8.1. I hope Microsoft develops a technology similar to Stardock’s ModernMix (site), which lets you run Metro apps inside their own windows on the Windows desktop.

An Enterprise version will be mouse- and keyboard-dependent, but it won’t be updated every three or so days. This is the Windows 7 replacement, at least to my way of thinking. If it looks and acts like an improved version of Windows 7, that’s the version I’d recommend for just about every experienced Windows user.

Keep in mind: All this information is based on leaked and uncorroborated reports that might represent Microsoft’s current planning. There’s no assurance that any of this leaked information will come to fruition.

But given that bit of preview — and given the team that’s putting the next Windows together — I’m hopeful that Windows 9 will have one flavor that looks like a better Windows 7 and another flavor that works great on phones and tablets. And that they arrive in time to plug the whooshing sound emanating from Windows 8.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-02-27:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.