Microsoft? Winning? Guess who's behind it

Microsoft's preview of Windows 8, an apparent tour de force, left many of the Redmond's harshest critics stunned. Read on for the backstory

Yes, the devil will be in the proverbial details, but at Microsoft's Build conference last week the sharp thinking behind Windows 8 was a veritable blast of fresh air. Even that most infamous of Microsoft critics, InfoWorld's Galen Gruman, practically gushed over company's tablet prospects.

What happened to turn things around so dramatically? Two words: Steve Sinofsky.

More accurately, it's Sinofsky and his team: Julie Larson-Green, the interface designer, who regularly appears on stage; Jon DeVaan, software engineer, who shuns the limelight; and Grant George, who builds, tests, breaks, and fixes systems with alacrity.

Sinofsky's been on this trajectory most of his professional life. People who knew him in the early days watched him pull Word and Excel together, two applications from different universes that had to be marketed as one. It was a tough act, not only from a technical point of view but also because of the personalities and huge egos involved. Sinofsky created much of the glue that made Office 95 and 97 seem less like a motley collection of disparate applications. Many old-timers still talk about the insights he wove into the Microsoft Foundation Classes, the libraries that turned C++ into a development environment worthy of the term.

His project management chops came when he led the progressively more successful Office 2000, Office XP, and Office 2003 efforts, culminating in Office 2007.

Sinofsky, DeVaan, and George go way back: They were all involved in the Office 95 integration effort and worked together through Office 2000. DeVaan left to work on Microsoft TV, then took on a special project for Gates, revamping Microsoft's software engineering processes. George stayed with Office. Larson-Green started as a Visual C++ developer, then moved to work with Sinofsky on the user interface in Office XP. She's widely credited with creating the Ribbon interface, which debuted in Office 2007. By September 2006 -- shortly after Office 2007 went gold -- all four of them were out of Office, working on Windows. Many people don't realize that the Windows 8 management team's been in place, intact, for five years -- and the principal players have worked together for more than a decade.

The four were dealt one of the dirtiest assignments in Microsoft's history: Rescue Windows from the debacle that was Vista. The result was a product that, technically, isn't significantly different from Vista. But Windows 7 has been produced, packaged, and marketed brilliantly, and Sinofsky has drawn much of the credit.

Whether Windows 8 will live up to its Build billing remains to be seen; there are plenty of known gaps and a world of unresolved issues. Bifurcating the user interface may help Windows survive in the post-PC era. Or maybe not. Time will tell.

Right now, two points stand out, to me anyway.

First, what we know now about Windows 8 should accelerate the switch to Windows 7. Before the Build conference, many Windows customers were beginning to wonder if their operating system had a viable future. If Microsoft doesn't fumble the execution, Windows 8 should put those worries to rest.

Second, although Sinofsky has taken the stage many times before, Windows 8 was clearly his big-time coming-out party. Drawing a lesson from Apple's decade-long beatification of Steve Jobs, Microsoft's handlers are doing a superb job of turning Sinofsky into a tech celebrity. Even people who would never swallow the Microsoft Kool-Aid came away from the Build conference mightily impressed with his performance. Make no bones about it, what we saw at Build was a stunning performance.

In a world that's quick to fault Steve Ballmer for every Microsoft shortcoming, the 'Softies need a hero. Sinofsky's the right guy for the job. It strikes me as yet another step in the likely Ballmer exit plan.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.