We all know that in the coming few weeks there will be many more details available on Microsoft’s 2012 product launches. Final Windows 8 details, Surface details, the launch of Windows Phone 8, the launch of Office 2013, the Xbox Dashboard update, etc. But what comes next? Forget everything you think you know about Microsoft, because it seems likely that 2012 was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of change.
A lot of the news I expect to hear between now and the end of the year is around reorganizations. The Server and Tools Business (STB) recently reorganized many of its divisions into a functional organization reporting to President Satya Nadella. Soon we’ll here of more reorganizations, including changes in Steve Ballmer’s direct reports. That this is an ideal time for reorganizations should not come as a surprise. Those will be in the details. Today’s Microsoft organizational structure largely reflects the “old Microsoft” and now it needs to reflect the “new Microsoft” and what it needs to accomplish.
There may be some huge surprises in the upcoming reorganizations but the only thing I’ll speculate on is what happens to Windows Phone. It makes no sense as a standalone business reporting to Steve, so where does it go? Speculation, even before the Entertainment and Devices business unit was split apart with Robbie Bach’s departure two years ago, was that Windows Phone would eventually become part of the Windows business unit reporting to Steven Sinofsky. This still seems likely. However, Microsoft has also made previous attempts to combine various telecommunications offerings together into a single business unit and it is possible they’ll try that approach again. Recall that the smartphone business was once part of a broader Mobile Communications Business (MCB), but as part of gaining focus on Windows Phone MCB was consumed by its child and non-WP efforts abandoned. However, with the acquisition of Skype one could imagine combining Windows Phone, Skype, Lync, and perhaps other telecom-oriented assets (e.g., Mediaroom) into a single Telecom Business Unit. It’s a long-shot, but it makes sense.
It should also be no surprise that Microsoft has already started some planning work on the next version of Windows. Early disclosures about Windows 8 included comments about work done prior to Windows 7 RTM. Rumors are calling this Project Blue or Windows Blue and wondering why it isn’t called Windows 9. Some are speculating that’s because it is something between Windows 8 and Windows 9. The explanation for this apparent change in project naming schemes can run from extremely simple to wildly speculative.
Let’s start with the simple. Sometime (relatively late) in the Windows 8 cycle it was decided to give Windows on ARM a different name and some different characteristics (no Win32 apps, no joining to Domains, etc.). The “Windows 8 Project” thus produced two products , Windows 8 and Windows RT. Calling the next project “Windows 9″ thus makes no sense, even if the Windows on x86 product is called Windows 9. You may now just have a project called “Windows Blue” that will produce two products, Windows RT and Windows 8.1/9/whatever. That would be the simple explanation.
The more complex explanations run a broad gamut. Microsoft could be signaling that it is considering a naming scheme change for the x86 product and thus using a number in the project name makes no sense. Or the name “Project Blue” may encompass more than just Windows, a topic I’ll get to later. Most likely it is also an acknowledgment that everything we know about Windows (and other product) release cycles is outdated.
I’ve blogged previously about how Microsoft might change its release cycles to match modern expectations, but we won’t really see what they’ve decided to do until about 12 months from now. I believe Microsoft is going to standardize on 6 month releases for Cloud offerings and 12 month releases for packaged, or on-premises, products. They’ll do this for four reasons. First is that technology is in a rapid change phase and the 24-36 month cycles that had evolved over the last couple of decades no longer accommodate that change. Second is that this is the expectation that major competitors (Apple, Google) have set, particularly for consumers. Third is that as Microsoft provides common products for Cloud and On-Premise use they can’t allow the two to deviate to far from one another. A six month cloud release cycle and 24-36 month on-premise release cycle means that customers would have to implement hybrid solutions using products that are as many as six releases apart. Fourth, with IOS dominant and Android ascendant, Microsoft has to become far more agile if it wants to see it’s “re-imagined” Windows bet pay off in the tablet space.
Before all the enterprise types freak out about 12 month release cycles keep in mind that back in the 80s this was more typical for enterprise products. At one point DEC’s Rdb/VMS was releasing every 6 months! The key here is to keep the change from release to release very well controlled so that neither apps, nor user training, are broken. It is more of a slow evolutionary approach. From an IT perspective, these releases (despite considerably more functional change), should look closer to what is required for deploying a Service Pack than what is required today for a new release.
The last topic I wanted to cover is a change which many may think has already happened, but it is just starting. Although it looks like Microsoft did a very good job of coordinating and planning its 2012 releases the reality is that it was simply serendipity. For example, the Office team did not start out with Windows 8 support as the high-order bit in its planning process. It was focused on the Cloud, beating Google, doing more around Information Protection, it’s perennial stalking horse of Collaboration, etc. Oh, and we have to support touch. Oh and there is Windows 8 so we better have a release somewhere around the same timeframe to support it. This is why, for example, there are no pure Windows Runtime versions of the Office client apps other than OneNote. Besides the teams reporting to Steven Sinofsky (Windows, Windows Live, IE) the only Microsoft organization to truly align its planning and priorities with Windows 8 was the Developer Division. Everything else was serendipity and/or late plan changes to take advantage of the momentum building behind Windows 8.
I believe this is changing, with Microsoft moving to more broadly align planning across its product family. As an example, if Windows RT is a demonstration of where Microsoft wants to go with Windows than allowing desktop-free environments is a priority and requiring it for Office is an embarrassment (to say the least). Joint planning would identify elimination of the desktop requirement as a goal and the need for the Office team to produce pure “Metro” versions of its products on the same timeline as Windows releases. Likewise on the Enterprise side the various Server products have never coordinated their planning and are now likely to move to do so.
Note that coordination is a lot easier when product cycles are 12 months long than when they are 24-36 months long. The shorter cycles eliminate much of the schedule risk of taking dependencies on one another, and even more importantly eliminates much of the strategic problem of having to meet your own customer requirements but not being able to wait for the other product’s next 24-36 month cycle (which in the worst case could mean 4-6 years for you to address a customer requirement).
Which brings me to one very speculative question, what if “Project Blue” isn’t the name for the next release of Windows but rather the name for the next wave of client products that includes a release of Windows?
Over the next few months we will see Microsoft reorganize, change its planning processes, and replace its historical release paradigm, to adapt to the changing world. It’s a new Microsoft, and seeing how it changes to create and release software is almost as important as knowing what it will produce.