The Vista saga: an opinion

Posted on in Microsoft

The announcement of the Vista delays has sparked a new round of debates about what’s going on at Microsoft. The mailbox has been full of questions for me on the subject – so here’s some insights from a former employee (’94-2003) and manager in the Windows division.

For sanity – I’m an independent and this is not an apology, rant nor inside scoup. Instead it’s commentary from a management author on what’s been said and what’s going on.

  • Centralized authority and MSFT culture. The most comical misperception about Microsoft is the management style – everyone think’s it’s a rigid hierarchy, when it’s mostly a consensus driven place. Everyone gets an opinion and senior managers are often more skilled at consensus management than leading teams. If there’s any one thing I’d point to for large failing projects is lack of successful central authority – With a project in trouble I’d move to centralize power in a smaller number of people and free them to run with the ball. The rub is that the culture doesn’t support this well – people still want a consensus mentality (something born of small team and start-up culture), they want to own their slice, even when it’s contributing to driving projects into the ground (or at least mediocrity). It’s in the fiber of the company and it’s hard to change.
  • Talk is cheap. Every time I read rants about gutting Windows, firing all the VPs or making Windows open source I have one comment: I don’t believe you’d do it if it were your job to manage Windows. As easy as it is to yell orders from off the boat, I doubt most people, if given the helm, would put an $8 billion machine at risk. Certainly not now, as it would mean another 2 years of development. Besides, no one wants to be the one that tanked one of the greatest franchises in technological history (regardless of how that franchise was built). Even if big, bold moves are in order – I doubt most of us would have the guts to take those risks if we were personally accountable for the results. It’s a classic innovator’s dilemma situation. A better gripe is how the franchise hasn’t been managed on a steady progressive course, given how many possibilites there are for making things better without taking radical moves.
  • It’s never just one thing. It’s fun and convenient to chalk up project problems to one issue. “The VPs are idiots – fire them all!” or “they were too ambitous” but there’s rarely one reason (Nothing drives faith in the easy answer more than frustration). Most of the time there are several factors that conspire together, especially if it’s a large project with large goals. There are often successful sub-teams working inside most large, problematic projects (And some are speaking out over at mini-microsoft). As a consultant, understanding (and fixing) projects involves finding the factors and accouting for them without tanking the parts that work well. There’s rarely a single move that saves the day and any problem that took months to develop is not going to be solved in a hour.
  • A slip is infinitely better than a panned product. With a slip, even 6 months, people will cry and scream but the world will not end. However, with a bad release, like Windows 98ME, Bob or Netscape 5, the world just might fall on you. So while a series of slips shouldn’t inspire confidence, it does mean there is a sane person somwhere in the organization with their hands at the controls. The Vista news has been mostly negative, and no competitor has tried to capitalize on it, meaning a slip has little competitive risk.
  • However, the door is open for competitors . The bad Vista PR over the last year has made a window – Linux, Firefox and Red Hat should be doing something: a viral ad, a marketing campaign, anything. But they’ve been awfully quiet and I don’t understand why. I think this is the more interesting story than what’s going on in Redmond. The MSFT Windows multi-slip ship cycle is an old (perhaps sad) story, but the silence on the battlefront deserves more attention.
  • Microsoft’s PR and public management of the Vista project has been reactive and weak. I’ve never thought PR and marketing were well directed by executives (well funded, yes, but well managed or empowered, no). Many announcements and launches were messaged in the blandest, most generic ways possible (Win95 and X-box the most notable exceptions). Microsoft is inherently a conservative company (in strategy not tactics) and its always shown in its advertisements and approach to PR. For all the stereotyping of Microsoft as a great marketing company, I never saw it: Nike, Intel and Apple are all dramatically better and amplify the value of their product lines. Vista’s failures to date are more dramatic from a PR and messaging perspective than anything else. They’ve failed to articluate a value proposition (even if invented), and to bring a positive meme around the release to match or compensate for the litany of negative announcements and setbacks. The greatest failure of the project to date isn’t technological or managerial – it’s PR and messaging. A private train wreck is one thing, a public one is another.
  • Windows is a bear. Much of the franchise has been based on backward compatibility and some things that should be improved in the abstract can hurt the product line – it’s a trap any successful platform faces eventually (Just look at HTML or javascript). People write code to your bugs or inconsistencies, and when you come back to fix them you realize you’ll do more damage to them than good – a quality inversion. I don’t justify how the product got where it is – but here it is. Deciding what to do in any direction is strategically and technically complicated – this shouldn’t mute the complaints of unhappy customers, but it should be noted by anyone confident they can do a better job. Quality inversions surface in any project successful enough to see a version 5, or in Window’s case, version 8 (Win 1-3, Win95, Win 98, Win 2000, Win XP, Vista).
  • Sinofsky is an inspired move. The MSFT culture, historically, is heavily polarized between Windows and Office. In my day Windows were the smart-ass cowboys who liked risks and breaking rules – not surprisingly Windows had a history of confused early projects that came together only on the home stretch. Office (again, in my day) were stereotypically smart, reliable, consistent A students, who won through plans more than passion. Sinofsky (formerly the Senior VP of Office, now VP of Windows) is the first major attempt I know of to bridge those philosophical and management differences: there’s something to be learned in both directions.

8 Responses to “The Vista saga: an opinion”

  1. Wesley Parish

    Could I interject a bit of history here? Microsoft is now in the position of IBM in the eighties and nineties, before it started bleeding red ink.

    The real question is, will Microsoft ever manage to maintain its formerly phenomenal ROI (company-wise, not product-wise; I don’t think many of its products were ever that phenomenally great in ROI.), while maintaining its current practices? As far as the Developed World goes, that market is saturated. As far as the Developing World goes, that marketplace is rather spotty at the best.

    So Microsoft charges into the Developing World, nixes its new markets through blind stupidity, and gets no ROI? So Microsoft ignores the Developing World, because it has NO markets with anything like the ROI it’s familiar with, and everbody else creates the market, which Microsoft can’t then enter?

    Opening the Source Trees of obsolete products like MS Win9x and the 3.x and 4.x MS WinNT under the MS Community License, for those markets, would at the very least preserve a viable presence for Microsoft and its product lines.

    It’s not as simple as you’ve made it out to be; conversely it’s not as complex as many others would make it out to be.

    Reply
  2. Aaron

    I’m not sure what competitors–with the exception of Apple–would do for a viral ad or a decent marketing campaign.

    I own an Apple Mac mini, I try all sorts of Linux distros, and I use Firefox on and off, but with the exception of Apple, none of them really have compelling consumer ready products, and very few have a reasonable marketing budget. (And honestly, a web browser isn’t exactly life changing when most non-techies open at most one or two browsers at a time).

    Reply

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  1. [...] The Vista saga: an opinion Talk is cheap. Every time I read rants about gutting Windows, firing all the VPs or making Windows open source I have one comment: I don’t believe you’d do it if it were your job to manage Windows. As easy as it is to yell orders from off the boat, I doubt most people, if given the helm, would put an $8 billion machine at risk. Certainly not now, as it would mean another 2 years of development. Besides, no one wants to be the one that tanked one of the greatest franchises in technological history (regardless of how that franchise was built). Even if big, bold moves are in order – I doubt most of us would have the guts to take those risks if we were personally accountable for the results. It’s a classic innovator’s dilemma situation. Very interesting (and long; but worth it) post by Scott Berkun, a UI designer who left Microsoft in 2003. Put like that, you would halt a little and say “Uh, what will we replace that $8bn with? Online adverts?” (Seen at Berkun blog) (Scott added – in a comment that regrettably got eaten by my spam filters – “In the history department on how to replace a $8 billion bussiness – the debate within Microsoft over how to move past the Windows platform has come up several times. The book How the Web was won by Paul Andrews, although heavily pro-Microsoft, does get into how Brad Silverberg (VP for Internet products) and others wanted to move to an Internet platform, leaving windows behind in 1998 (IE 4.0 was going in that direction). Jim Alchin according to the book, defended the Windows platform, BillG made his choice and Silverberg eventually left the company.” Thanks, Scott. [...]

  2. As a former MSFT employee myself, I……

    As a former Microsoft employee myself, I think Scott is right on for the most part regarding the issues surrounding Vista (and its delays). I’m not however convinced there’s a door open for competitors (besides Apple) which is wide enough,……

  3. Vista – So what?…

    Interestingly it still seems that people are expecting huge returns from Vista.. Sure XP is more stable than the abomination that was ME or 9x, but it is still plagued by trojans, adware and virii. It is very likely that……

  4. [...] It’s worth a read, is better informed than my outsider opinion, with references to action vs. results management, Too many cooks, Broken windows theory, opnions on Line of code measurements, etc. One favorite quote from his essay: After months of hearing of how a certain influential team in Windows was going to cause the Vista release to slip, I, full of abstract self-righteous misgivings as a stockholder, had at last the chance to speak with two of the team’s key managers, asking them how they could be so, please-excuse-the-term, I-don’t-mean-its-value-laden-connotation, ignorant as to proper estimation of software schedules. Turns out they’re actually great project managers. They knew months in advance that the schedule would never work. So they told their VP. And he, possibly influenced by one too many instances where engineering re-routes power to the warp core, thus completing the heretofore impossible six-hour task in a mere three, summarily sent the managers back to “figure out how to make it work.” The managers re-estimated, nipped and tucked, liposuctioned, did everything short of a lobotomy — and still did not have a schedule that fit. The VP was not pleased. “You’re smart people. Find a way!” This went back and forth for weeks, whereupon the intrepid managers finally understood how to get past the dilemma. They simply stopped telling the truth. “Sure, everything fits. We cut and cut, and here we are. Vista by August or bust. You got it, boss.” [...]

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