There's reason to hope Windows 9 will be better

Microsoft's new head of operating systems group, Terry Myerson, gets it. But will he have the fortitude -- and backing -- to build a better Windows?

Terry Myerson is a tough guy to pin down. Where his predecessor, Steve Sinofsky, would post pages-long blogs explaining in raptuous telemetric detail many of the components that made Windows 7 and 8 (and by extension 8.1) tick, Myerson has a reputation for letting his products speak for themselves. That's going to make it hard to second-guess where the next version of Windows is headed -- but all indications at this point are encouraging.

Let's start with a few points that, while debatable to some, appear to my long-suffering Microsoft-observer eyes as self-evident:

  • Windows 8 (and 8.1) is one of the largest disasters in Microsoft's history. I don't fault Sinofsky for trying, but the Jekyll-and-Hyde two-headed monster didn't and doesn't work, and Microsoft would be foolish to throw more money that way. Tablets and phones have rightfully eclipsed old-fashioned desktops and laptops on many fronts, but Microsoft's actions unnecessarily accelerated the traditional desktop Windows' decline. Windows 8 threw most of Microsoft's 1.4 billion Windows customers to the wolves -- and they aren't buying it. (Touch tiles on Windows Server? Puh-lease.) On the bright side: Win8 has cemented Windows 7 as the operating system of choice for companies and individuals locked into the Windows architecture. That's not a bad outcome.
  • Microsoft was crazy to bifurcate Windows RT -- the "modern" programming API set -- into a phone version (called Windows Phone Runtime) and a tablet/desktop/everything-but-phone version (WinRT). I wrote about the sorry state of WinRT apps on Windows Phone 8 a little over a year ago, in response to Gartner's press release that said, "[Windows 8] provides a common interface and programming API set from phones to servers." That was and is pure marketing drivel, and it led to one of the most basic flaws in the Windows 8 approach. At the risk of re-stating the obvious: Microsoft should've grown Metro "up" from phones to tablets, instead of "down" from the desktop. Sinofsky and crew thought they would be clever and move the old-fashioned desktop user base to Metro. Few customers bought into it. In fact, they ended up nearly killing the aging golden goose -- and alienating a lot of corporate and consumer customers in the process.
  • There's still a huge demand for desktops and laptops running a non-touch-centric (but possibly touch-enabled) version of Windows. That demand's declining, admittedly, but it isn't going away any time soon, and demand for the old desktop may actually improve with voice, gesture, and other non-touch technologies that are emerging. Microsoft's ignoring -- alienating -- a huge market by trying to graft a toaster onto a refrigerator, er, an upstart touch interface onto a venerable environment that plays by mouse rules.

Here's where the optimism comes in. Although it's very hard to read between the lines with Myerson -- and his views only rarely reach the press -- as best I can tell, he gets all three points. He's uniquely qualified to pull both the old-fashioned desktop and Metro out of the fire. It remains to be seen how he'll respond to the challenges or if he'll get the corporate backing to pull it off.

Consider Myerson's history. Prior to December 2008 -- just before Sinofsky took over the ill-fated Windows Vista project and started working on Windows 7 -- Myerson was in charge of Exchange. When he took over the Windows Phone engineering effort, his first significant decision involved scrapping the Windows Mobile operating system and replacing it with Windows Phone. In July 2011, Andy Lees, then the widely respected president of the Windows Phone division, was pushing for Windows Phone and Windows to grow together -- an effort said to be supported whole-heartedly by Myerson.

At the same time, Sinofsky was pushing for Windows Phone and Windows to grow together as well, but in a slightly different way: He wanted to absorb Windows Phone into his Windows empire. If you look at the corporate politics from a software point of view, both Lees and Sinofsky were working on WinRT (called Windows Phone Runtime on the phone side), with Lees working from the phone up, and Sinofsky from the desktop down. Push came to shove, Lees was moved aside in December 2011, and Myerson took over the entire Windows Phone effort.

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