The Elephant in the Room

I have a hundred (ok dozen) finished not quite ready blog posts. Except it’s hard to finish them because I don’t particularly like saying hard things. Negative things. Some of which will be brutal to people I have enormous respect for and consider friends.

I’ll get back to the technical things. It’s just the code gen stuff has been evolving at a background level in real projects and I need to work out verbalizing the core, the best practices of the details. And, my column takes up some of my Tips and Tricks type stuff.

This is one of a series of passion posts – posts about how deeply screwed up our industry is becoming because we are tied to Microsoft and they are becoming rather screwed up.

Let me start with someone I don’t know, that way it’s easier for me.

Redmond Developer published a cover story regarding Steven Sinofsky replacing Jim Allchin as head of the Windows team. That’s cool. Let Jim move on to whatever pleases him. Maybe he’ll have time for lunch as he’s second on my list of people I’d like to meet (and no, neither Gates nor Ballmer is first).

The entire article was about Sinofsky “holding his cards close” – meaning we don’t know what’s coming in Windows 7. First, I agree completely with the article. We should rise in revolt at any attempt to remove transparency from the Microsoft development cycle.

Microsoft wishes to believe it is just a company making money. It is not. Perceptions to that affect are bad for us and bad for Microsoft stockholders. Microsoft’s job is not to create great new products. Its job is to lead an ecosystem with great new products. Out here, that’s not a subtle difference. Microsoft decisions affect trillions of dollars in investment and assets for companies around the world. They have an absolute obligation to be transparent and if they do not continue to lead through transparency – which is the only way to ride the tornado they created – we must call the bluff that we have no options. We are certainly not there now, but we as the consumers must not bow down to the vision that we have no choices. As individuals today, we may have little choice. But as an industry, we can create choice.

It is imperative that Microsoft lead by transparency.

But the article ignores the elephant in the room. Sinofsky came from Office – unless my timeline is warped – he brought you Office 2007. Let me choose the nicest words possible: Office 2007 is an abomination. Do not believe for one second that this was an attempt to make your life easier. Do not believe that any honest usability lab could have been shown this UI to be useful to you. And for reference I use it and have for over a year, so this is not a comment on the initial shock factor. Nor will I waste your time with the stupidities in the interface. Let’s jump to why.

It was an attempt to protect Office – at your expense. Open Office is pretty damn good. It’s run on most of the computers in my home. We exchange documents with Office on a regular basis. There is no true force keeping people on Office for the vast majority of document and spreadsheet creation. Microsoft knows this. So it created a user interface that it believes it can protect. If you don’t believe me, look at what you have to sign to use the interface.

Ha! Let’s put the features you’re guaranteed to use every day under a logo that does not look like a button. Mom becomes the geek of her retirement community whispering that secret. Let’s backtrack on accessibility – don’t let them change font size. Let’s have the only discoverable way to make italics be Alt-H, Alt-2. OK, we’ll leave Ctl-I but to discover it (previously in the menu caption) make them type Alt-F, Alt-I (you can’t tell if that’s a 1 or the cap letter I on screen either), six down arrows, enter, Alt-t, one down arrow (assuming you know which tab Italics is on), tab, two down arrows. (Think you’ll never have a stroke or skiing accident?) Oh, and does any of this work right to left yet? Full stop. I could go blog post after blog post on what’s wrong with the Office UI. This UI was created to be different and protectable, not better for you.

The core issue is that Microsoft put the person in charge of the most extreme shift to controlling the ecosystem since Lotus and AmTrak fought over the sliding bar interface (if you don’t get that joke, never mind). Protection of a grossly overpriced Office superceded the good of the ecosystem. And the person in charge of that mess is now running Windows. You worried? Add in that he is being allowed to reverse a companywide shift to transparency apparently started by Ballmer himself eight years ago.

The shift to transparency is couched in the Karl Rovian phrase “translucency” meaning secrecy.

Transparency means “my people will not be afraid to talk to your people.” I’ve only seen two fallouts from transparency: Insider’s groups whine a little about not having much warning ahead of the public (It is beautifully short, often at zero) and people being disappointed when Microsoft backtracked, particularly on Vista, previously known as Longhorn.

Hey, I was there. I drove through fire to get to the Longhorn PDC and ice to get home. Microsoft got explicit feedback (from me and many others) that it was too grandiose a plan “even if you could do it, which you can’t, we can’t uptake it.” The shrinking of Longhorn was the right thing to do and the stupid thing was that they said they could do it all. You don’t fix that by removing transparency. In fact the transparency around Longhorn was important – there was a lot of feedback regarding which features had marginal value like the whole let’s do the file system in SQL so we can organize our photographs stuff.

Translucency means “I will control what you know.” It means things aren’t public and there isn’t a route for you to give feedback until a beta stage – in case you haven’t noticed, betas happen at feature complete meaning your input is explicitly excluded in terms of shaping the product. It means people can’t talk. And, it is not the solution for the issues given. Just look at Charlie Calvert or Paul Vick’s blog. They don’t say “This is what we’re going to do.” They say “this is what we’re thinking about.” It’s transparency with honesty and realism. And it gives you an opportunity to shape the product in public discussions. It wasn’t transparency that led to Vista disappointment; it was a lack of honest assessment of reality.

This is getting long, but I want to answer the 89 people that have already started writing comments that Microsoft is a company and is in the business to make money. That is totally true. But, as the keeper of the ecosystem, they make money by managing the ecosystem to the ecosystem’s advantage. They cannot help but make money if the Microsoft ecosystem is healthy. They will wither as a natural result if the ecosystem is damaged, no matter how they contrive to exploit the dying ecosystem. It cannot be any other way. Trying to protect the ridiculous price of Office with a unique but terrible UI metaphor to perpetuate the myth that people must use Office is a disservice to shareholders. Hiding the future of Windows 7 prohibits us giving the feedback. Here it is: the most important thing in Windows 7 is to get Vista right: fix the driver issues for legacy hardware, improve performance, fix a few annoying bugs like that stupid toast the details layout, keep up the improvements in security. Hmm. That’s about it. Market it showing off the cool features its already has and only throw in new things that work really well.

The most valuable thing Microsoft could do for its future position and the ecosystem would be a commitment that Vista will be compatible with all existing hardware and to write the drivers themselves if necessary. Twenty five years ago, in the midst of the Xerox PC debacle, a tiny little company in Houston took on IBM by promising if software didn’t run on its OS, they’d fix it. Guess who? That’s a powerful promise. If Microsoft can’t make that promise on drivers, they screwed up and need to fix it in Windows 7.

Either that or they need to plan a decade long strategy for uptake, including ongoing availability and upgrades to XP.

If the Windows team was transparent, showing us flashy features, our answer would be “for god’s sake, just make Vista work well”.

This is your ecosystem. Don’t stick your head in the sand. Pay attention to what’s going on. Talk about it. Scream about it.

PS. I don’t know how widely used the “elephant in the room” metaphor is. It means we have something so big we can’t be unaware of it, but at the same time, we’re avoiding talking about it.

5 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room”

  1. You are a brilliant lady that is what attracted me to your blog. In this blog; I do not see the point of you writing this other than just because you can. What new information did you intend to expose… everything in the blog is- Duh! Microsoft Word UI sux- Duh! Microsoft job is to make money- Duh! By the way, do not be surprise if Microsoft Word UI becomes the standard look; folks always complain about new technology prior to becoming supporter. Just look how SQL Server begun.

  2. Um, the following line is missing a key concept:

    “_If you can’t use a mouse,_ let’s have the only discoverable way to make italics be Alt-H, Alt-2.”

  3. Sorry for your comments about Office 2007. I have been using this version for some time now and I do’nt want to use and see any other version again.

  4. On the other hand, consider Apple: Zero transparency (going so far as to sue Web sites that publish leaked information), yet its iPod/iTunes/iPhone ecosystem is doing quite well, thankyouverymuch.

    If the keepers of the vision are in touch with reality, transparency becomes much less critical. This issue is not transparency, it’s that the decision makers at Microsoft have lost touch with reality.

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