Paul Thurrott has been posting recently that inside Microsoft people are referring to Windows 8/8.1 as “Vista”. Of course many outsiders (but not me) have referred to it as being as bad as Vista ever since Windows 8 was revealed to the world. I have a problem with the analogy, though I understand why insiders would now be using it.
The problem I have with the Windows 8 as Windows Vista analogy are the quality problems that Vista had. It just didn’t work. That’s not a problem Windows 8 had, so I really don’t like the comparison. For me its a visceral thing.
Another problem Windows Vista had was that it offered little compelling user value. Yes the security was much better, but the pain level that it forced on users was higher than the perceived benefit. This was the result of many things, a key one being a failure to balance the benefits of the User Account Control (UAC) feature with its potential intrusiveness. A second being that UAC exposed the architectural flaws in many applications (that required them to run as administrator), and Vista took the blame for the application vendors’ tardiness in addressing them.
But the third problem is one where the Windows 8 and Windows Vista analogy does work for me. They both exhibit an arrogance towards users that needlessly alienated them. That is, they don’t offer enough compelling value for the majority of users compared to the pain level they extract. They both expected users to accept change and pain just because Microsoft said it was good for them.
In Windows Vista’s case it was literally forcing change without explanation or any significant benefit. In Windows 8’s case it was forcing desktop users to accept changes that were necessary to enter the tablet market, and that pointed to a future direction for all users, before they provided any benefit to those desktop users. Dropping the ability to boot into the Desktop? Totally arbitrary, unnecessary, and insulting in the eyes of most users. Dropping the option of a cascading Start Menu? Almost as bad, though I continue to believe that if the Start Screen had been designed a little differently it could have been accepted. Still it’s clear that what users wanted, and Microsoft could easily have offered, was Windows 8 with a “Tablet First” mode and a “Desktop First” mode. Then subsequent releases could have made those more nuance than reality.
The feedback on this was clear from the first appearance of the Windows 8 Developer Preview, but the Windows team’s reaction was the opposite. The ability to turn on boot to desktop and the cascading start menu were removed after that preview and the feedback. Power Users saw it as pure arrogance. And while I think most were irrationally negative on the new Start Screen, and other aspects of Windows 8, the Windows team showed little sensitivity to their input.
And therein lies a key problem with Windows 8 and the development philosophy of Steven Sinofsky. The secrecy. The unwillingness to bounce things off customers early enough to make changes. A worship of schedule and process above wisdom and expertise, even if the result is the wrong thing shipped on the promised timeline. Steven will no doubt dispute this, but this is how those outside his sphere see his way of developing software. And in the case of Windows 8 it caught up with him, in a really big way.
And that’s why insiders are equating Windows 8 and Windows Vista. There is no more damning thing they could do. Steven’s leaders threw Vista in the face of anyone who criticized their decisions or the processes by which they got there. It was Microsoft’s version of playing the “race card”. It was almost impossible to defend a position in the face of the Vista card. Windows 7 seemed to prove the Sinofsky way of doing things as the right way. He became President of the Windows Division with almost free reign over Windows 8. And the ability to win almost any battle with other divisions. The result? Failure by most definitions, complete failure by some.
Calling Windows 8 “Vista”, and getting ready to name a release Windows 9, is much more than an attempt to distance Windows from Windows 8. It is the way to distance Windows, and Microsoft overall, from the Sinofsky era. Rumors that Microsoft may discuss Windows 9 (nee, Threshold?) at Build 2014, if true, is an external acknowledgement of this.
Meanwhile “Windows 8” has probably become the new “race card” at Microsoft. A symbol of how process over product fails. A symbol of how failing to listen to your customers results in product failure. A symbol of how failing to exploit collective wisdom and experience results in product failure. And unfortunately, as much as we can hope otherwise, a way to shut down discussion rather than pay attention to constructive criticism.
Let me be clear that Windows 8, like Windows Vista, has far more good in it than most critics (internal or external) are willing to acknowledge. And the software engineering process focus that Sinofsky brought to Windows was a sorely needed change from the disarray that lead to Vista. Windows 7, almost certainly the best release of Windows ever, couldn’t have happened without Windows Vista. Windows 7 also couldn’t have happened without great development processes. It sounds like Windows 9 will likewise build on Windows 8, and will likewise build on solid processes that have been remolded to (hopefully) merge the best of the Sinofsky-era processes with the best of the pre-Sinofsky era and subsequent learnings.
But if you want to know the real lesson from all of this it’s that the Windows team doesn’t have, and has not had since Windows 95, good processes for doing revolutionary advances of Windows. The much beloved Windows XP and Windows 7 releases were done with completely different philosophies and processes, but were very much incremental improvements over their predecessors. The two releases intended to revolutionize Windows, Longhorn/Vista and Windows 8, both failed largely because they didn’t have processes suitable to their scope. In the first one could argue it was too little process discipline, and in the latter too much. Yes there are many other factors, but the lack of having the appropriate processes for revolution rather than evolution stands out as a point of commonality.
So is Windows 8 the new Vista? I still don’t like it, but if making the analogy helps the Windows team create a truly great Windows 9 release than I’m all for Microsoft using the analogy internally.