He was the first to remove the floppy drive, everyone followed. He was the first to remove the disc drive, everyone followed. He was the loudest to tell Adobe to shove Flash, everyone sorta followed. He was the rebel. He was different. He dreamt of changing the world and he did. He is respected by rivals, he has touched many with his work, his passing is mourned by all but some FOSS supporters.

Steve Jobs and Apple are known for the bold decisions they took. For every organization, there are strategic product decisions to be made that will define the future course. Reed Hastings announced Qwikster and had to do a u-turn. Apotheker said they’ll spin-off HP’s PC division, he was out and the decision revoked. Major decisions can either go your way or not. For Apple, the decisions did, for others not as much. I am sure if one was dig into HP’s history, there’ll be several strategic decisions that worked in their favor and propelled them to an industry leader position. Similarly, for Netflix. Let’s talk about Microsoft’s decision to can the Courier and their evident lack of innovation resulting from the decision…

Courier and what it was

I’ve hypothesized before that Microsoft’s desire to have desktop Windows on a tablet has a lot to do with enterprise (and because Microsoft believes tablets are a subset of PCs). Jay Greene at CNet has an excellent scoop on how, who & why the Courier project was abandoned. The article talks about J Allard’s pitch to Bill Gates, the lack of an email client and Courier being a content creation device for artists. The Courier mock-ups showed social integration so when we talk about no email client we are talking about Microsoft Outlook-like resource hogging, ultra uncool and very enterprise-y mail client; not a simple client like the Metro Windows Live Mail. With the iPad rumored and Microsoft’s previously failed tablet attempts, a niche market product like one for artists becoming Microsoft’s tablet device is a tough sell. Especially since (as I’ve repeated several times) Microsoft will now have to add another operating system to their already long list of device/segment specific OSs. And the added trouble of introducing consistency, integration and synchronization between the PC, phone and the new tablet.

Interface wars: Phones & tablets vs PC

Now, Apple has taken a tablet OS, released on a phone, then refined it for a tablet and introduced some concepts on the desktop. If the Courier were to come out, there would’ve been a Windows interface (Aero+Ribbon), the high expectation of turning the Courier’s interface into a phone UI and the added responsibility of making all this work in the same ecosystem—think apps. Add the enterprise to the mix and strategically this looks like a clusterfuck to me. The Metro interface (along with Ribbon) gives Microsoft the ability to bridge the phone’s UI and the desktop UI bringing the best elements of the two platforms. Mary Jo Foley wrote about this dual interface strategy and how the Windows 8 tablet is not the Windows Phone tablet, I agree, it’s not. Microsoft has a challenge and it is not providing two interfaces but:

Enabling users to stay in one mode and perform what they want.

I’ve used Windows 8 and found that I keep getting sent to the regular desktop for stuff I want to do. This is annoying. The more Microsoft is able to make me stay in Metro when I am using the device the more users find the UI tablet-friendly. If every few clicks the user is thrown into the desktop mode, this new Metro interface becomes a pain and in many ways reduces productivity. There is nothing wrong with Metro but Microsoft’s functionality.

The problem with two UIs

If I want to browse files and I am shown the Explorer icon on the Metro screen I will click it. I’m hard wired as a Windows user. After a few times I wonder why does Metro even exist. This is a feeling Microsoft needs to eliminate in a way that is natural and the user DOES NOT need to go into the Explorer mode unless he specifically wants to. The same applies for a desktop user. When I am using Windows 8 on a desktop, I don’t want to go into Metro where there are big tiles and I can’t scroll to the right of the screen unless I use the thin scroll bar at the bottom.

Big decisions

These are fundamental and bold decisions for Microsoft. Much like Apple’s or HP’s or any organization’s. Does this mean Microsoft is still living in the past? I think not. The Courier was pitched as a product that was clearly not a tablet device for most of Microsoft’s customers. Sure there are artists who might be using Windows, but seriously, think about it… Macs have ruled this segment. Be it a writer or a photographer, they all use Macs. That’s not Microsoft’s customer base. The enterprise and Windows users however, are. In such a scenario does investing in a new platform make sense when the possibility of having Windows 8 run on ARM is real? Windows 8 demos have shown how amazing the OS is at memory management. It can boot quickly and it can go to sleep almost instantly. If Microsoft can overcome the schizophrenic Metro-Explorer switching, the OS can be used millions of Windows users, the application ecosystem exists from day 1 and the experience across the phone, desktop and tablet is consistent.

Innovation @ Microsoft

To come up with this strategy is innovative, bold and huge. Something a visionary would dream, something that is consistent yet different, something that enables users to do more with there already is. This brings me to the whole innovation @ Microsoft or lack thereof discussion. Microsoft has on multiple occasions released vision videos and demonstrated research projects demo-ing what they are working on and how it can shape the future. The two are intertwined. I’ll probably repeat my statement…

Microsoft has on multiple occasions released vision videos and demonstrated research projects demo-ing what they are working on and how it can shape the future.

The only sane-voice in his world of technology, John Gruber, said the videos prove nothing regarding innovation at Microsoft and are bullshit. Much like Apple’s Newton video (his words). I honestly don’t care about the Newton video and wouldn’t compare it to Microsoft’s vision videos. I have seen some of the vision video products in action. They exist. Does this mean they are ready for mass production and the moment they come they will be at a price that they’ll sell out and is the rest of the ecosystem (environment, technology and infrastructure) in place to make what’s shown in these videos possible? Let’s not ask those questions in Gruber’s world of technology. He’s seen Minority Report so knows for a fact that all that was shown in the movie wasn’t just made up but real. Research projects take years to turn into real products, in the mean time how do the researchers justify the cost and resources? Prototypes that are usually unfinished and proof of concepts along with how they see these prototyped devices changing existing practices, are how. The vision videos show innovation isn’t just about abandoning flash or removing the floppy drive, it is more than that.