They’re just five words, but those five words hold a universe of importance to Microsoft. Those five words prompted a sweeping revamp of Microsoft’s core organizational structure this morning: Newly vertical divisions were carved out, executives were shuffled, and some senior-level people even lost their jobs.
One Microsoft, all the time. It means a lot for Microsoft. What could it mean for you? If everything goes to Steve Ballmer’s grand plan, no less than a seamless computing experience across every device you own.
That grand plan envisions a truly unified OS experience across your phone, tablet, notebook, desktop PC, and TV. They all run the same apps, the settings are in all the same places, and your game saves carry over from console to computer and back again. Live tiles everywhere!
With this reorg, that vision could—could—become reality in a few years.
Islands in a rocky sea
The first hints are already in place with Windows 8. The controversial modern UI spans desktop displays and tablet screens alike, shares a plethora of design elements with Windows Phones and the Xbox 360, and even rocks a common core with Windows Phone 8 and the impending Xbox One, making it easier for developers to swim between the various islands in Microsoft’s ecosystem.
But for all that, the various elements of Microsoft as we knew it were just that: Islands.
The Windows Phone team worked on Windows Phone; the Windows division worked on Windows proper; the Office team worked on Office; the Interactive Entertainment Business presided over Xbox; and so on. Microsoft has been shifting to a more unified design structure in recent months, but having so many fiefdoms with so many chiefs introduced cracks on the edges of Microsoft’s grand vision.
Windows Phone’s core UI is just a wee bit different that Windows 8’s, as is Xbox’s interface. There are no underlying design principles uniting the Xbox, the Surface tablets, and the average Windows Phone. Apps and services are updated as each department sees fit, on the platforms of each department’s choosing. Basically, the Microsoft ecosystem has been a hodge-podge.
One Microsoft, all the time
Microsoft’s reorg slices the company into divisions that are aligned much more closely with its “One Microsoft, all the time” vision. All of the company’s in-house devices, from Surface tablets to Xboxes, fall under one division now. Another division is in charge of creating the core operating system for every Microsoft platform, while yet another unit now heads virtually all app development.
Each division controls the reins of a crucial vertical slice of Microsoft, slices that transcend specific platforms and services. Those divisions will be able to deliver a unified product across the width and breadth of Microsoft’s platforms—assuming all goes to plan.
And more importantly, each of those divisions is dependent upon communicating with the others. An app needs an OS to run on, and an OS is mere bits on a disc without hardware.
Now, we won’t see any major changes from this anytime soon, despite Microsoft’s newfound rapid-release religion. Correcting the course of an organization as large as Microsoft takes time. (Just ask BlackBerry.) But when the fruits of these changes do blossom, they could be mighty tasty indeed.
But more importantly than that, all those devices share the same core experience: A unified system design, with crucial elements in familiar locations no matter which device you’re using. The same apps and services are available on all devices, either from the web or from the shared OS core, and thanks to the touch-friendly modern UI spanning across platforms, you can even run most apps on your Surface Watch. Behind the scenes, SkyDrive hums along quietly, syncing your apps, settings, game saves, DVR details—and heck, maybe even your chosen configurations for your Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and headset. Shifting from device to device would be utterly seamless.
One Microsoft, all the time.
Bumps in the road
Idealistic? Sure. But even if the grand vision doesn’t coalesce completely, everybody wins if Microsoft simply manages to rival Apple and Google and build out a cohesive ecosystem of apps and services with a common look and feel.
Well, almost everybody wins. This unified vision will likely have its victims.
First, I have to wonder: Where do the third-party device manufacturers stand in all this? Windows can run on a wide swathe of hardware, but “One Microsoft, all the time” carries somewhat ominous tidings for the likes of Acer, HP, and Dell. Don’t be surprised to see more “experiments” with Chrome OS or $200 Android laptops in the future, as Microsoft’s message skews slightly towards Apple’s tone.
Or could a vision where all of Microsoft’s products have the same look and feel be a vision of elegant, yet desultory sameness? And if that happens, is that where third-party hardware can shine? The service and software roots of One Microsoft, All the Time would work just fine on hardware from any OEM, after all.
The desktop is dead, long live…the Tile?
Next: This reorganization leaves no doubt about it. The desktop is the past for Microsoft; the modern UI vision is the future for the company. The desktop simply can’t carry over from device to device and app to app in the same way that the modern UI and its flexible WinRT architecture can. The die is cast. The death of the desktopis coming, at least in the vanilla consumer version of Windows. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday.
As a devout lover of the keyboard and mouse, the thought makes me grimace, too. But if Microsoft manages to pull off the vision hinted at by the reorganization, I won’t cry for the desktop’s loss. That’s a big if, as Microsoft’s ambitions have exceeded its ability to execute in recent times. Nor has Microsoft been able to convince consumers to jump aboard the Live-Tile bandwagon en masse, and this reorg makes no changes to the modern UI’s underlying principles. But if One Microsoft, All The Time lives up to its potential, the bedeviled Windows 8 interface could wind up being much, much more than just a tacked-on tablet interface.