Sayonara, Steve: How a new Microsoft CEO can breathe new life into Windows

The pitchfork wielders have won: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is retiring sometime in the next year, after he completes the search for a successor. And you know what? It couldn’t have happened at a better time.

No, I’m not bashing Ballmer for the monumental transition that Microsoft currently finds itself in. In a world with many screens and a taste for mobile, Microsoft needs to change, or the company will wither. But while Ballmer may have started the ball rolling on these big changes, he simply couldn’t be the one to finish them.

Ballmer’s retirement is a defining moment for Microsoft and Windows, one way or the other. With fresh blood comes fresh flexibility—and maybe, just maybe, a return to the Windows desktop we know and love.

More mobile, more Metro

Microsoft’s Surface Pro.

Ballmer saw the writing on the wall in the wake of the iPad—a bit late perhaps, but he saw it. Microsoft dove into the push for mobility and the cloud with gusto, rolling out rapid-fire releases instead of staid three-year development cycles, its own line of tablets, and a revamped org chart designed to impose consistency across the company’s myriad platforms. It’s One Microsoft, all the time and across all devices, an ethos embodied by the divisive Windows 8.

If you’re into mobility and consistent experiences across all your displays, the sure vision sounds great. There’s just one problem: Ballmer led Microsoft during the golden years of Windows XP, Windows 7, and Office, and he’s just too tied to the golden calves.

The biggest flaw in both Windows 8 and the Surface tablets lies with the desktop. Or, maybe it’s the modern UI, or Metro, or whatever it’s called these days. Either way, the warring interfaces turned Microsoft’s latest operating system into a usability kludge, but Ballmer’s Microsoft decided it was better to foist an unwanted interface upon millions of desktop users to further its mobile agenda. Or, if you want to look at it another way, the company foisted the desktop upon the Surface RT owners just to bring Office to mobile devices.

Right now, Microsoft stands with one foot in the past, and it’s crippling the company’s future potential. Fresh CEO blood can come in without baggage, cutting the ties and pushing the company into a wholly modern era—at least on the consumer front.

“Microsoft’s very visibly public smartphone, tablet, and PC [endeavors] have been in absolute disaster [in recent years],” says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. “I would bet that [Ballmer’s successor] is going to be an outsider. The image Microsoft wants to share with investors is that they’re going to change, and bringing someone from the inside doesn’t show enough change.”

Still more mobile and more Metro, but also more desktop

Fresh blood could mean the death of the Windows desktop—or a new CEO could be the desktop’s savior. Windows 8.1 eases the transition between the desktop and the modern UI, but a new CEO could roll back the sweeping changes in a way Steve Ballmer never could once Microsoft was set on the do-or-die Metro course.

The great Windows 8 experiment has been an unmitigated disaster by pretty much any metric. (See: Plunging PC sales, low Windows 8 usage, the scant use of modern apps on PCs, and so forth.) Modern apps and Windows RT will be a part of the future of Microsoft, but right now, forcing them on PC users only seems to be slowing down PC sales and annoying paying customers. The convergence certainly hasn’t sparked Windows tablet sales the way Microsoft hoped it would.

“Windows 8’s shift towards mobile has actually deeply hurt its desktop experience, which is still a lot bigger and a lot more valuable than people recognize,” says Ben Bajarin, the director of consumer technology at Creative Strategies. “Even though the PC market isn’t growing, it still sells a lot, and will continue to regularly sell a lot.”

And that’s why Microsoft should protect the PC, rather than sacrificing it. Ballmer had to be committed to the bold Windows 8 course. A new CEO can take a kinder, gentler approach to Windows and try to soothe the bruised feelings of PC owners the world over by—gasp!—following Apple’s lead. Apple’s done a stellar job of slowly merging gesture controls, UI elements, and even some apps from iOS over to OS X to create a consistent experience across its platforms, but it still lets a Mac be a Mac and an iPad be an iPad.

Stardock’s ModernMix app

A new CEO could guide Microsoft down a similar path with Windows 8. (I’d argue a new CEO would be smart to do just that.) And refocusing on the desktop wouldn’t necessarily mean dumping the cross-platform mobile vision into a ditch: Stardock’s absolutely stellar ModernMix app already proved that modern-style apps run just fine on the desktop, so Microsoft could keep Windows 8’s default apps thoroughly ensconced in their finger-friendly trappings, but in traditional, well, windows.

And if a new CEO does that, he could even bring back the Start menu, which would eliminate the need for manufacturers like Acer and Lenovo to install Start button replacements like Pokki on their PCs. That would not only deliver a consistent experience across PCs, it would also keep Pokki’s app store from competing with the Windows Store.

Meanwhile, the Charm bar and hot corners could stay in place, ensuring UI consistency across PCs and tablets.

Bringing it all together

But what about those Windows tablets? As I said, the new CEO has the opportunity to more fully embrace the modern interface.

Windows RT should dump the desktop completely and focus solely on the modern UI. And I’d argue that full-fledged Windows 8 tablets should mostly dump the desktop, too, and allow traditional software to be run in Metro-style windows, sort of like a reverse ModernMix while in tablet mode, then intelligently switch to the desktop mode when connected to an external monitor and keyboard, a la the Ubuntu Edge.

Ballmer couldn’t politically pull of that kind of change after setting the Windows 8 course, but a new CEO has ultimate flexibility. Witness what Stephen Elop did with Nokia’s “burning platform.”

Changes are afoot

A new CEO could also wind up sticking to Microsoft’s status quo and see how things play out—a very possible course if a longtime Microsoft insider replaces Ballmer at the top. But that strikes me as a missed opportunity: If no changes were needed, a change of CEOs wouldn’t be needed, either.

Microsoft isn’t dead. Far from it! But the old Microsoft is, and no matter who takes the reins, they’ll have the freedom to remold the new-look Microsoft in ways that Ballmer never could.

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