After Sinofsky, Microsoft must stop the secrecy, say analysts

With Windows' secretive chief out, Microsoft's best move is to bring OEMs, developers and customers back into the loop

The best move Microsoft could make after Steven Sinofsky's departure is to ditch the culture of secrecy he brought to Windows, analysts said today.

"One thing that may be a benefit to Microsoft is to drop the belief that information non-disclosure is a critical component of development," said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a research firm that focuses on the Redmond, Wash. company's moves.

"When you distance your evangelists from the information they need to succeed, you hurt yourself," added Miller. "[The secrecy] over Windows 8 did not help their case."

Sinofsky, 47, and a 23-year veteran of Microsoft, either vacated his position as president of the Windows division of his own accord Monday, or was fired by CEO Steve Ballmer. Microsoft promoted Julie Larson-Green, a Sinofsky lieutenant and Window's chief designer, to head all Windows software and hardware engineering, and gave CFO Tami Reller responsibility for the business side of Windows.

Sinofsky's exit was a surprise to most Microsoft watchers, although in the days since several have claimed they had heard rumors of his impending departure, or noted signs that in hindsight predicted the move.

While analysts have been mixed this week on the impact Sinofsky's removal will have on the company and its strategy of tackling mobile devices with Windows 8 and its offspring Windows RT, experts today focused on one key component of Sinofsky's regime: secrecy.

In his time running Office development -- he oversaw Office 2000, Office XP, Office 2003 and Office 2007 -- Sinofsky earned reputations for secrecy as well as for completing projects on time. He brought both with him when he took over Windows in 2006, immediately after the finalization of Windows Vista.

His proclivity to play cards close to the vest may have worked for Office, but it couldn't in the larger ecosystem of Windows, another analyst argued.

"You can develop Office in silence," said Michael Cherry, also of Directions on Microsoft. "There are few outside developers for Office. But I'd argue that you cannot develop an operating system that way."

Windows, unlike Office, relies on a whole host of supporting players outside Microsoft, from the device and peripheral makers -- dubbed OEMs for "original equipment manufacturers" -- to independent software vendors (ISVs) and the company's largest enterprise customers.

Complaints of a lack of information about Windows 8, Windows RT and the designed-by-Microsoft Surface RT tablet -- all of which launched Oct. 26 -- have been rife for months. Developers bemoaned the lack of Windows RT hardware they said was necessary to write apps, or optimize those they'd already crafted. OEMs griped about out-of-the-blue moves by Microsoft, like the sudden announcement last summer that the company was creating its own tablets. Enterprises tried to puzzle out the licensing of the new software, including Office RT, or how new devices running Windows RT were to be managed.

And for all the blogs that Sinofsky wrote -- something he apparently took pride in, mentioning them in his final memo to his team -- under his leadership, there were simply too many glaring gaps.

"With Vista they were too sharing, but with Windows 8, they went too far the other way," said Cherry. "And they paid the price. The lack of useful apps for the Surface at launch, the lack of information to developers, definitely damaged the effort. Microsoft didn't oversell the features, that's certain, but now they're paying the price. Enterprise deployment and app development is slowed because of a lack of information.

"The lack of sharing with OEMs and app developers is the reason why there are so few good apps in the [Windows] Store," Cherry said.

He used an example to hammer home the point. "If you're an enterprise, does the Microsoft account interact at all with Active Directory, or are they two separate worlds?" he asked. "Microsoft seemed to be unwilling to share that information."

Miller concurred, and used his seven years at Microsoft, which he spent in the Windows Core and MSN divisions, to illustrate.

"When I worked on the rapid adoption program for Windows XP and then later, for Office XP, one of the key things was sharing information on what we were planning with OEMs and customers," said Miller, referring to a program Microsoft uses to get feedback from customers, usually large organizations, on features during product development.

"There was always a steady flow of information," Miller said. "But I know a very large petroleum company that has had so much frustration over the last year, about what's coming, how it will be licensed. It's not just analysts and the press who are unhappy with the secrecy. It's everybody."

Other analysts, some of whom have long talked about the change in information dissemination since Sinofsky took the Windows reins, chimed in, too.

"Sinofsky was said to alienate ISVs, [independent hardware vendors], retail partners and customers with his Microsoft-first attitude," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, earlier this week.

Now that Sinofsky is out, Microsoft as a company, or Larson-Green and Reller, as Windows' new leadership, have an opportunity to correct that course.

"Maybe what we might see from the new regime is a more open communication channel with the [Windows] ecosystem," said Cherry.

Miller agreed, saying that Microsoft should try to regain the trust of its OEMs, outside developers and customers. "They have a lot of opportunity in front of them in the next six months, not only to not abandon Windows enterprise users, but to begin evangelizing Windows 8, and even Windows 7," he said.

"Sinofsky had a very distinct management style, and part of that was informational control, something he instilled in Microsoft," Miller concluded. "The question is, will they want to continue that or will they change going forward?"

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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