This past week was Build, Microsoft’s developer conference, and much of the content was on Windows 8.1, the new point release of Windows. But what may be becoming lost is the rebirth of Microsoft under Steve Ballmer.
You see, for the last ten years, Steve has been running Bill Gates’ company. It appears that over the last few months, Steve has been rebuilding Microsoft into Steve Ballmer’s company. This new Microsoft is very different, and you might argue, better, than the old one.
Let’s talk about the reborn Microsoft in the context of Build and Windows 8.1 this week.
The Bill Gates Microsoft
Microsoft was originally created as a platform-and-tools company targeting the then-nascent computing industry. At the time, the industry was mostly made up of hobbyists who spent thousands on computers that could do math a little faster than a calculator. It was tech for tech's sake. As the company matured, Microsoft switched—with IBM’s initial help—to targeting businesses. But it remained largely a technology-driven company.
I can recall the meeting with Bill Gates when I first realized why Microsoft’s products often seemed very raw and harder to use than necessary. I asked Bill what the future would look like, and he described the future he saw as if it were a topology map for a data center.
This engineer-centric approach built a company that was intrigued with what technology could do but often didn’t seem to understand how people would use it. To some, it seemed to be run more like a college campus than a business. In fact, kind of like a college campus where folks were competing for grant money, there wasn’t a ton of cooperation. The decision process could be described as being governed by the “biggest [expletive deleted] at the table” method.
What offset this approach was that Bill was actually reasonably brilliant and could go toe to toe with the best of them on technology. That prevented a large number of mistakes from making it to market during his reign.
Steve Ballmer wasn’t that guy. And, in my opinion, he hasn’t been nearly as successful running Bill’s company.
The Steve Ballmer Microsoft
Steve Ballmer was the guy corporations complained to when they had problems. He was the fixer, and he has a vastly better idea of how things should work.
However, he doesn’t have the technical background that Bill had. So while he could drive products that were easier to use and better reflected more of Microsoft, he couldn’t work well under Bill’s executives and framework. He needed to make changes—but avoided doing so for years—likely because Bill is his best friend and he didn’t want to mess up Bill’s legacy.
Well, that has clearly changed, and you can see this in the point release of Windows 8.
Windows 8.1: a Metaphor for the New Microsoft
The start button is stupid. Even though customers wanted it, Bill Gates's Microsoft probably wouldn’t have brought it back because it was redundant.
Under Steve Ballmer, the customer rules. Stupid or not—if this is what the customer wants and it doesn’t break anything else, it’s going back in.
Under Bill, concerns about piracy were paramount. This was because young Microsoft was almost put out of business by people pirating and not buying its initial products. If you have a close call where you almost fail, it tends to change you, and it changed Bill.
You saw this influence in the initial five-device limit for current-generation Windows products. If you had more than five, your music didn’t transfer to that extra device. Under Windows 8.1 that limit has been removed and sync capability significantly enhanced, so your apps sync as well now. Rather than doing what most media companies do—treating everyone like they are dishonest—with this product Microsoft will only focus on going after people that are abusing the privilege and stop punishing everyone. (Now if we can just get the video content folks on this same page.)
Windows prior to Windows 8.1 was mostly about new features—most of which people never learned to use. The Windows 8.1 improvements are focused mostly on making the product easier to learn and use. It offers better consistency across all product types, including phones. You can use search to find everything from aps to files and music just by typing what you are looking for. Menus have been made easier to get to and more intuitive. And from the IT perspective it is far easier to manage devices and to secure them.
With support, Microsoft is leading the elimination of passwords which are both difficult to implement well and known to be unsecure. It's also supporting 3D printer,s the next big technology wave.
Finally you may remember one of Steve Ballmer’s most infamous videos where he screams that developers, developers, developers are Microsoft’s most important asset. Under the old Microsoft, it often seemed like the company was competing with developers more than helping them. Under Windows 8.1, a huge amount of improvement has been put into assuring the developers make money, have less aggravation, and that the best apps and the best developers get showcased and receive the best financial benefits.
This is huge.
I think Windows .1 is the metaphor for the new Microsoft: A firm that is more customer- than technology-centric. A company that will work more like a company and less like a bunch of warring grad students. A company that will produce products that will make developers richer and more successful and users less aggravated and annoyed.
Going farther, I think we will like this new Microsoft far better. I’m already a huge fan of Windows 8.1 because after a decade of whining they finally fixed the most annoying aspect of Windows—the time it takes to migrate to a new PC. Instead of hours and days, it is a few unattended minutes.
I’m going to like this new Microsoft, I think you will as well. This is just the start of what I expect will be some amazing changes going forward.