Steve Jobs vs. Microsoft's Sinofsky: Vision vs. hindsight

There's a fundamental difference between the way the iPad was created and how Windows 8 is unfolding

I've been buried in Windows 8 for several months, and I think I understand now why the iPad has been (and will continue to be) so popular while Windows 8 seems to be suffering internally from irreconcilable differences.

We all know about and deride design by committee: Put six or eight people together and they'll make far more design mistakes than any one designer could make in a lifetime.

Windows 8 wasn't designed by committee. The Metro part and the Metro-legacy desktop interaction came from a very small handful of people -- primarily Windows and Windows Live president Steve Sinofsky.

There's no question that Sinofsky's done some amazing design work in his day. The Microsoft Foundation Classes, promulgated 20 years ago, were pure genius. Since then, first with Office then with Windows 7, he's proven over and over again that he can bring great software products to market in a way that few people ever have.

But Sinofsky's approach to design and that of Steve Jobs couldn't be more different.

Jobs started with the germ of an idea and obsessively whittled away at it until he felt good about the end product: No focus groups. No user labs. No marketing input. No users telling him what they wanted, or why or how. He had a vision and he brought it to fruition.

Sinofsky, on the other hand, is a master at assembling and dissecting information about the way a product is used. Few people realize it, but he's been the driving force behind a Microsoft internal product called Watson, the source of the "telemetry" that he's fond of citing in the Building Windows blogs. In his book, "One Strategy," Sinofsky says:

Words can't express my love of Watson -- it was simply the biggest innovation in computer science in the past 10 years. I don't say that lightly and I mean computer science. After all, we now have software that is far more self-aware and we have far more information available to us about how software is behaving. I would add to this the distinct idea (and invention) of SQM and would say that together, they are responsible for some of the biggest improvements in quality and usability that we have ever been able to accomplish.

Windows Error Reporting runs as a service in Windows. It intercepts crashes and hangs, and then categorizes and bundles them up neatly. The Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP) watches what you do and keeps detailed notes. The two together form the basis of Watson. They basically tell Microsoft what users are doing, how they're doing it, what has gone wrong, and how problems are getting solved, both from a system point of view and from the user's perspective. Watson is absolutely, completely opt-in: If you agree to participate in the Customer Experience Improvement Program, your data gets sent to Redmond. If you opt out, crash data accumulates on your PC but nothing gets transmitted to the mothership.

SQM, Software Quality Metrics, pulls together usage data and turns it into powerful insight about how users are faring with a specific feature.

Sinofsky and his team are masters at analyzing how people use Windows. They can test out new ideas, focus on current sticking points, and get valid observations from thousands of people, initially -- up to millions now with the Windows 8 Customer Preview. If you are running the Windows 8 CP, you agreed to participate in CEIP and are providing Watson data to Sinofsky's crew right now. Armed with the insight of how people are using the product, how they're getting stuck, and what they're doing to try to extricate themselves, Microsoft can build a better Windows.

Both the Jobs (and presumably Tim Cook) approach and the Sinofsky approach have produced excellent results. But they're very different.

The Jobs approach relies on vision and guts. The Sinofsky approach relies on massive user input, insight, and analytical abilities. My sailing friends have a term for it. They call it "steering a boat by its wake."

This story, "Steve Jobs vs. Microsoft's Sinofsky: Vision vs. hindsight," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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