097. A Plan for a Changing World [Ch. XIV]
We were determined to find a way to do better than to slowly lose relevancy as we’d seen happen to IBM. —my own thought bubble, 2009
Welcome to Chapter XIV. This is the first of two chapters and about a dozen remaining posts that cover the context, development, and release of Windows 8. Many reading this will bring their own vivid recollections and perspectives to this “memorable” product cycle. As with the previous 13 chapters and 96 posts about 9 major multi-year projects, my goal remains to share the story as I experienced it. I suspect with this product there will be even more debate in comments and on twitter about the experiences with Windows 8. I look forward to that. This chapter is the work and context leading up to the plan. Even the planning process was exciting.
In the summer of 2012, I was sitting across from BillG at the tiny table in the anteroom of his private office on the water in Kirkland. The sun was beaming into my eyes. In front of me was one of the first boxes of Microsoft Surface RT, the first end-to-end personal computer, general-purpose operating system, and set of applications and services designed, engineered, and built by Microsoft. In that box sat the culmination of work that had begun in 2009—three years of sweat and angst. After opening it and demonstrating, I looked at him and said with the deepest sincerity that this was the greatest effort and most amazing accomplishment Microsoft had ever pulled off.
Later that same week, I had a chance to visit with Microsoft’s co-founder, Paul Allen (PaulA), at his offices at the Vulcan Technology headquarters across from what was then Safeco field. I showed him Surface RT. I previously showed him Windows 8 running on desktop using an external touch monitor. At that 2011 meeting he gave me a copy of his book Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft and signed it. Paul was always the more hardware savvy co-founder, having championed the first mouse and Z80 softcard, and had been pushing me the whole release of Windows 8 on how difficult it would be to get performance using an ARM chipset and on the challenges of hitting a low-cost price point. Years earlier, Vulcan built a remarkably fun PC called FlipStart, which was a full PC the size of a paperback novel. Surface RT with its estimated price of $499, $599 with a keyboard cover, and a fast and fluid experience, resulted in the meeting ending on a high note. I cherished those meetings with Paul. I also shared with Paul, proudly, my view of just how much we should all value the amazing work of the team.
What I showed them both was the biggest of all bets. While not “stick a fork in it” done, by mid-2012 Microsoft seemed to have missed the mobile revolution that it was among the first to enter 15 years ago. In many ways Surface RT set out to make a new kind of bet for Microsoft—a fresh look at the assumptions that by all accounts were directly responsible for the success of the company. Rethinking each of those pillars—compatibility, partnerships, first-party hardware, client-computing, Windows user-interface, and even Intel—would make this bet far bigger and more uncomfortable than even betting the company on the graphical interface in the early 1980s. Why? Because now Microsoft had everything to lose, even though it also had much to gain.
With Windows 7, we knew we had a traditional release of Windows that could easily thrive through the full 10-year support lifecycle as we had seen with Windows XP. Windows 7 would offer a way to sustain the platform as it continued to decline in relevance to developers and consumers, while extracting value from business customers with little incentive to change.