Like most people, I too was surprised when Bill Gates recently announced stepping down as Chief Software Architect at Microsoft. And to minimize the shock that this would cause, he also announced that he would stilll be around helping Ray Ozzie, who took over his Chief Software Architect role, during a transition period of 2 years. He’ll still remain Microsoft’s Chairman for the foreseeable future.
The reasons given for stepping down are related to Gates wanting to spend more time working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for which he’s been working part-time for a while now. But looking at recent events and the situation at Microsoft, you can’t help but wonder if that really is the (only) reason for Gates stepping down. With the company facing a number of issues, and being in the middle of the ever delaying Windows Vista and Office 2007 development cycle, I’m sure he could have waited and picked a better time for his announcement, say, after Windows Vista and Office 2007 had shipped. Ofcourse the way things are going, that could mean having to wait a long time, and Gates sure is in the position to know this better than I do.
I think the reason for Gates stepping down is that he is basically admitting his failure. I’m not sure if he is doing it himself, or if he’s being pressed by others to do it. But he, or others around him, have probably come to realize that his performance and his results as Chief Software Architect have not been very good in the last 3-5 years, and only seem to get worse. Gates himself has said that he feels very excited about things like voice recognition, tablet PC, unified filesystems and many other things that he feels that he still needs to help realize (see interview done by Robert Scoble), and it doesn’t make sense to me that someone who is excited about this would step down and go focus on unrelated things at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It seems to me that if he was really excited about his work at Microsoft, he’d want to stay. That’s not an unreasonable assumption to make for someone as passionate as Gates, if you ask me. It looks like it’s just not as fun anymore for Gates, not fun enough for him to want to stay, in any case.
One of the biggest failures of Gates is Windows Vista. When Windows Vista and Office 2007 miss their release dates, people often begin to blame Steve Ballmer. And as CEO, he has the ultimate responsibility, but the real guy in charge of Windows Vista is Bill Gates. Afterall, he was the Chief Software Architect, and the most senior technical guy responsible for making Vista development a success. And the way Windows Vista’s development went is nothing to be proud of to say the least. It’s a classic case of overpromising and underdelivering.
I still have the PDC 2003 DVDs with all the sessions about the various new technologies and features that would make their way into Windows Vista. It was very exciting to see that, but very little of those features are going to make it into Windows Vista. Microsoft has been either completely removing features out of Windows Vista, even major ones like WinFS, or seriously scaling back other planned features. What remains now of Windows Vista is just a tiny part of what it was really supposed to be. And even then, its release is continiously being delayed. I’ve tried beta versions of Windows Vista, and the quality of the beta releases are less compared to previous betas I’ve been in. When Beta 1 was released it just seemed like they had to release it just so they could keep their promise of releasing it on schedule. There were such obvious bugs in it, I kept wondering how people missed those. The answer, ofcourse, is not that they missed those bugs, they just didn’t have enough time to fix them and have a more quality Beta 1 release. Even the Beta 2 release lacks quality. And just like they released Beta 1 just because they had to keep their promise, they are promising to release Windows Vista by the end of the year for businesses, with the consumer versions being released in January 2007. I don’t know about you, but that seems rather odd to me. If the consumer versions can’t be finished by the end of the year, why can the business versions be ready then? Weren’t all the versions supposed to be released on a single DVD?
It just looks like they’re saying that the business versions of Windows Vista will be ready before the end of 2006 just to lessen the impact of another delay for the short term. There are already mentions of another delay, and it won’t surprise me one bit if general availability of Windows Vista slips to the middle of 2007. I’ve been saying before that they should have taken the time required to do it right, instead of giving out unrealistic release dates. The whole issue they’re having now is because of their own stupidity. This is certainly not the way to go if you want to please your big Software Assurance customers on the long term. On the short term, I guess you can certainly get away with unrealistic release dates, yes.
One of the major screwups that Gates was in charge of is WinFS, which was supposed to make it into Windows Vista. It was so important in fact, that it was called one of the pillars of Windows Vista. First it was taken out of Windows Vista, and it was said that it would be released after Windows Vista was released as an add-on. And now, it’s been announced that WinFS will not be released anymore as a seperate add-on. It’s been broken up, with bits and pieces of it going to SQL Server and ADO.NET. So there will not be a relational filesystem anymore. Take the time to read that blogentry with the announcement, and notice how Microsoft is trying to make it sound like this is a positive thing. You really have to appreciate the attempts at deception there, because they’re quite good. Here they are, essentially announcing “Hey, we’re going to stop working on WinFS, and we’re not going to release it anymore as an add-on for Windows Vista”, and they expect you to fall for the positive spin they put on it, trying to deflect your attention away from the fact that they failed to deliver what they promised. And according to the announcement, we’re supposed to like this because it was done “based on feedback they received.” I wonder who they got that feedback from, since last I checked, everyone was hoping WinFS would be released and bring us a relational filesystem. And we’re talking about what was once considered a pillar of Windows Vista!
Why can’t they just admit they screwed up? Just admit WinFS was too difficult a task for you, and explain why you can’t finish it, instead of trying to fool people. And WinFS was one of the things that Gates stood behind and wanted to get into Vista really badly. Together with the rest of the whole Vista mess, I think this is why Gates has stepped down. His other efforts like the tablet PC and Origami were also not very successful. If these are really the reasons why he’s stepping down, you have to wonder why he doesn’t just come out and admit it. The senior leadership at Microsoft just doesn’t seem to want to admit their failures these days. They don’t seem to want to hold themselves accountable. And if they do, they just “retire,” often with a 1 or 2 year transition period, not actually taking any blame and making their exit seem positive.
And now, the one guy that was setting the example for everyone else at Microsoft has left them. Yeah, I’m talking about Robert Scoble. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who won’t admit that Scoble has a done a lot for Microsoft’s public image, particularly, making the company seem more human. As early as 2003 he put up a list of points on his old weblog, explaining the things companies need to do if they want to put up a company weblog. Those points are exactly the things Microsoft needs to do right now, and I’m surprised they haven’t been paying more (any?) attention to the points Scoble listed there. I’m quite sure Scoble probably told them about those things much earlier and often as well, but it doesn’t seem like people were paying attention. At least, the senior management at Microsoft didn’t even seem to notice. I don’t think Ballmer or Gates even took the time to try and talk Scoble out of leaving Microsoft, which is a clear indication of how much they valued what he was doing for Microsoft, and how much they understand the need for what he was doing at Microsoft.
Microsoft is dealing with a number of problems right now, and in a future post I’ll talk about those problems and about the things they need to do to make things better for the future.