Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Build 2013 : Quo Vadis, Microsoft

After it became obvious to the Powers that Be at Microsoft that Windows 8 was bombing spectacularly, they went back to the drawing board, and said, "what do we need to add to windows to make it a commercial success?".

I believe Microsoft did a good job of that discussion, because what I heard today in the Build 2013 discussion on the new APIs and capabilities in Windows 8.1 they have thought about what kinds of tasks people might want to accomplish using Windows, for business, and at home, and what kinds of capabilities Microsoft could make available that are better than what other people are offering, and more importantly, they're making a bold "double down" on their investment in what can only be described as a mixed bag of successes and failures.  Or the worst version of Windows, ever.

With Windows 8.0 a public failure, and Windows 8.1 the plan to move past that, and with an incremental updates in Visual Studio 2013 to help people build apps for the app store, can Microsoft really turn around Windows 8's abysmal adoption figures and make something people will want to build on top of?    What? 100,000 apps in the Windows 8 app store? I wouldn't be publishing those numbers, that's closer to the Blackberry App store catalog size than it is to Android or Apple App Store sizes.

What do they have in Windows 8.1 that I think matters?  First, a new set of "Point Of Sale" APIs (They're calling it Point of Service), that look pretty slick.  Secondly, they've got an AirPlay clone baked into Windows 8.1, and a multi-monitor system including a "Projector" API that lets you make an application that has a presenter view and a public customer facing view. Previously WinRT apps had one and only one window, on one and only one monitor.  Which sucked.  So WinRT is growing.  And some of the RT APIs can be accessed from the desktop, including notifications.  All of this sounds good.  But it's not enough.  The Bing platform is cool too. Also, not enough.

What do they not have in Windows 8.1?  That's an even longer list:

  • NO complete and cohesive strategy to unify the disparate worlds of Windows Desktop and Windows RT/Store.  Imagine I am a software vendor with an existing Windows product.  How am I to feel about the split-personality disorder that is Windows 8 desktop (powerful business applications that run the world) and the Windows 8 store (Touch Screen Games  for Toddlers).
  • NO support for other programming languages or tools within the Windows RT/Store world. It's Visual Studio or nothing, C#, JavaScript, C++, or nothing. I want to build Windows RT apps using Delphi. Yes I could use Oxygene, but I want to use Delphi.  Embarcadero wants me to be able to do that.  But it would take a Microsoft effort to extend a hand to Embarcadero and get this going.  Until Microsoft cares about developers building stuff outside Visual Studio, I remain sceptical about the long-term health of the Windows Store and the Windows RT ecosystem.
  • NO changes to Windows RT that would make it compelling enough that I would want to buy a Windows RT device like the Surface RT, which Microsoft recently placed on an educational "Fire Sale" pricing, which tells me they've got a warehouse full of 'em and can't get them to sell. They're also basically giving them away to Build attendees. Maybe they should sell them to anybody who wants one, along with a 1 year WinRT Store developer account, at $99 each. Hey, that just might work. Are you listening Microsoft? Developers Developers Developers.
  • NO changes to Windows 8.1 that will make people who were previously negative about Windows 8.0 want to run out and buy a Windows 8.0 device like the Surface pro.
However, what they have not announced, I am meant to believe will be coming soon, using Microsoft's agile rolling release system.  If I believe in the message that Ballmer delivered, then the future of Windows looks very bright.  But on stage, what I see is a tired man, a tired angry, angry man.  A man who should step down and let somebody else rebuild this place.  But that's not what's going to happen. What's going to happen is Ballmer is going to radically reorganize Microsoft, as a part of his legacy.  Within 2 years I predict Ballmer will be gone, of his own volition.
I don't think he wants to leave on a low note.  Surface RT is a failure. Windows 8.0 is a failure.

The keynote did discuss a bit of start-menu/desktop integration.  A background image from Windows desktop is also now, if you like, the background image in the new "this time it's nice, no really we mean it" Start screen in Windows 8.1.  Wallpaper? Is that the best we could do? The fact is that jumping from one screen (your desktop) to another is against the grain, and against the entire history of Windows that has been baked into Windows since Windows first appeared on most people's PCs, in the Windows 3.1 era.    In the pre-start-button era of Windows 3.1, a Program Manager and a File Manager provided you with a way to launch programs.  Windows 95 brought the original version of the start-menu, the one that has hardly changed since that date.   A change was overdue.  But Microsoft clearly did not understand their customers, and went where the customers were not willing to follow.  Windows 8.1 still represents a leap that most users will not willingly make.

Quo Vadis Microsoft? Where the hell are you going? And are you sure your customers will follow you?

P.S.  The Channel 9 Video Host People are so awkward that I feel sorry for them.  Does anybody else think that they would be better off just letting the geeks and Microsoft staff just talk directly to the customers, and skip the whole Channel 9 Host "Personality" and "Color Man" bits?


  1. So perhaps MS without Gates is like Apple without Jobs: blundering and in need of a leader with vision, or at least with a coherent sense of purpose.

  2. While Bill Gates was a solid CEO, it wasn't really his vision driving the company. That can't be said now, because it really is Ballmer's company now, and anybody who has any differences of opinion with him is going to find themselves gone. That's what the restructuring some people are expecting soon is about. Even if it never happens, the fear of it happening is out there right now, and it's Angry Ballmer's Overhanging Iron Fist of Doom that is responsible for the company's current inability to recognize its peril.

  3. I definitely think that Windows 8 is the pinnacle of the attitude that says: "Steve Jobs didn't listen to anyone, he *told* people what they wanted. We should be like him and shove things down people's throats".

    It worked for Steve Jobs because, well, it just somehow did. Ballmer is no Steve Jobs.

  4. Every new platform is a chance for new people. Windows 8 is such an opportunity for (maybe) young folks to build their careers on. Microsoft is often said to be late at new technologies and trends, but look at iOS 7 and look at windows 8. it has many things in common, but this time Apple copied from Microsoft. Microsoft has delivered many good tools and technologies. AJAX, Visual Studio, C#, .net, TypeScript. They are on the right path, but people need to forget the old Microsoft, that was running late at Internet, Web Standards, mobile movement. One more thing has to be done by the Microsoft executives: Open your platform, provide your developers with the same tools you are using to build your platform. In short: make developers able to build the best possible app on all app stores for your platform

  5. Nate: I agree with everything you are saying, but Microsoft doesn't have a Platform, it has a series of platforms. You could call it Rugs. There's the Win32 rug, which was going to be pulled out from under us forcibly, forcing us onto .Net. Then there's the Silverlight Rug, where Microsoft creates the platform and then pulls it out from under everyone. Then there is .Net WPF which was the future of user interfaces on Windows, until suddenly, before it ever takes off in a big way, it's history, replaced by WinRT. The .Net folks are still smarting that WinRT and its new programming model is not using the same set of technologies that they already know and sort-of-love. So even the Microsoft faithful are scratching their heads. Go look up the differences between a .Net assembly and a WinRT Portable Code Library, for one thing. It's crazy, man, crazy.


    1. I agree with what you're saying, too. And after reading your point of view I remember the time when I was doing native development on Windows. No matter which layer I used; I used Win32, .net, WPF - I always programmed for the Windows platform eventually. I prefer .net (C#) over Java.
      What they are doing now is mixing different scenarios. They want to run their applications on all Windows devices, but that's not the way it works. Do iOS applications run on OS X? Have you seen an Android notebook / PC? Both, Apple and Google have their own Desktop operating system besides their mobile platforms. And it works just great. Chromium OS isn't a burner yet but the concept works and I believe that it will really work in a few years.
      Some month ago I and my business partner decided for our company to go away from all the native stuff and fully focus on the platform that connects all devices - the web. But once again we are using a Microsoft product (TypeScript) for our products. What I want to say: Microsoft still delivers great tools, but it has to get back confidence from developers and show them they can trust in the company.

  6. I don't want to be devil's advocate but Ballmer was a (somewhat) good CEO: he is the guy with "Developers, ...", he was the CEO for: XP, Windows Server (2003 to 2012), somewhat failed Windows Vista, but Win7 was a solid product. Also, with him we have video game consoles.

    I think Ballmer has just one defect: he's not that charismatic. He is not too funny, he's not having controversy around him as Jobs did, he doesn't come with: One more thing. Other than this, he looks a perfect capable business man, understanding when some technologies to be opened and to get into new markets.

    WinRT development model a failure? It may be, but I think that the main issue with Windows is the commodity of users interfaces, a huge legacy (like DOS or Win95 compatibility), and things of this sort. WinRT I think was a better response, and it got it's flack as Mac OS X 10.0 was on it's time: an unpolished product, but one that was needed to create a better Windows forward. Vista was the same, but without Vista, Win7 could not be created.

    1. I can agree with you that Ballmer is solid on economics, and and that Microsoft's aggressive business strategies owe something to Ballmer's take no prisoners approach. What I'm saying is that none of those products succeeded because of Ballmer's input. Win7 was solely the triumph of Sinofsky and the team under him. I don't blame Vista on Ballmer, rather I blame him for what he is responsible for; Company culture. Internecine warfare is destroying Microsoft from the inside out. There's a DEV tools group (Visual Studio and related tools), Windows group, Office group, and they are all at war. Meanwhile XBox group and Windows Phone group sit on the side and lose money. Oh wait, maybe XBox is now profitable (barely). But it was a good many billions of dollars burned before they broke even. Windows phone never will break even. But it's important for Microsoft to be seen to be trying, and they can afford to keep WinPhone alive for appearances until it doesn't matter any more.

      How do you think it might feel to be a Microsoft customer who relies on one of their products that doesn't get any love any more, like the Windows CE embedded systems partners in Industrial and Point of Sale markets? Right now if I was one of them I'd be mighty sad and upset. Microsoft is chasing the stupid Phone thing when what they should say is "Frack that, Apple and Android have the phone market locked, let's be number one on every other handheld and mobile device that can be out there, a market which Android and Apple are ignoring". When they have that kind of ecosystem, then Windows phone, which they will be keeping alive purely because they have a mountain of cash, will start to succeed. Until then, it will suck.

  7. In a hilarious reversal, I bought a Windows RT Surface device when they went on sale.