Sinofsky's out, and Microsoft still faces tough pathway to Windows 8 adoption

Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky's departure from Microsoft signals major problems with customer adoption of  the radically-different Windows 8 operating system. 

Analysts have been predicting for months that the OS will not catch on quickly inside large organizations. The reasons are fairly obvious for anybody who has tried the new touchscreen OS. It's going to be particularly difficult for entrenched Windows users to combine their years of using Windows desktop commands with a keyboard and mouse with the new Windows 8  touchscreen approach.

Sinofsky and skateboard

Steven Sinofsky, the president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live Division, holds a Surface tablet with skateboard wheels attached to show the strength of the device during the launch event for Microsoft Windows 8 in New York. (Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Analysts that I've interviewed have urged Windows 8 customers to first learn all the touchscreen commands for Windows 8 tablets, including the Surface RT tablet from Microsoft, separate from any keyboard. After mastering that touchscreen, they should then add the keyboard and its mouse pointer to make the tablet into a laptop as well.

I have used the Surface RT and Windows 8 tablets from other makers and immediately found myself each time confused about whether to touch the live tiles or use the keyboard and mouse. I quickly had the sense that I was going to need a few hours to really master the process.  And that's just to navigate, not to mention the troubles I found when looking for older programs or features (such as access to the Internet, believe it or not) that I would have found on a Windows 7 desktop. It's not because I'm stupid or slow, as the Microsoft backers contend.  (Admittedly, the online video of the woman who tried to use Windows 8 while drunk is overkill in making the point.)

My feeling is that Windows 8 is just so immense in its changes for the computing public that even Microsoft hasn't come to grips with how to market it or even how to explain it.  Arriving nearly three years late to the touchscreen tablet game with its immense desktop and laptop following in tow, Microsoft seems to have just birthed the Windows 8 OS too quickly in hopes that it will seem logical and intuitive to its smart users, and therefore easy.  

Large organizations and universities are offering training sessions for Windows 8 in advance of deploying the OS.  It seems almost like some organizations are planning to use the training sessions as a way to gauge if users will really curry to the OS, or will need much more training that might lengthen the adoption process.

IT managers are right now facing these questions: Do I run Windows 8 on older non-touchscreen machines, at least for a while to take advantage of older Windows apps? Do I authorize purchase of touchscreen machines that I want my users to use as laptop replacements? Do I want to have my users mainly use the touchscreen devices as tablets? When is a keyboard going to be a neccessity?

I've asked Microsoft to comment on the training steps it is taking with Windows 8  and I got an intelligent response that basically said there will be all types of users, some picking the new OS up on their own and others requiring more training. Microsoft did thorough testing on adaptability of the OS with users, with thousands of test subjects.  

But Microsoft didn't give enough credence to the slow learners in its testing, in my opinion. It's almost like Microsoft trusted their internal tests the way some politicians put too much reliance on their campaign staff's interpretation of the opinion polls in the November 6 election, surprising many in the end. All the testing in the world has to be matched against a good top manager's willingness to say that the tests are simply tests and shouldn't dictate the pathway forward.

Sinofsky seems like a brilliant man, and was a good onstage spokesman at the Oct. 25 unveling of Windows 8. There are reports of tension between Sinofsky and other Microsoft executives.  But even if that tension was a big reason for his departure, Microsoft will still face explaining and marketing Windows 8--and certainly making engineering tweaks.

When I heard Sinosfky was out, I  recalled the Oct. 25 event in New York City to unveil the OS as a jumble of confusing information for analysts and press.  I have been tracking Windows 8 for months, but Microsoft couldn't really articulate much about the OS that day. It seemed more like an event intended to let us touch and feel various third party tablets, laptops and all-in-ones, without any drill down on any of them, aside from our own insights. Some of the tablets on display didn't have the attachable keyboards, for example, and Microsoft laid them all out on several tables as if assuming we all knew the features of each. The staff on hand didn't speak for the manufacturers and so didn't have many answers.  

The most mind-boggling presentation of all that day came when Microsoft executives explained the Surface RT as a durable device, capable of being turned into a skateboard with wheels attached and able to withstand a fall to the floor. Sinosfky led that presentation, glossing over more insights about the actual Windows 8 OS with a focus on the product's durability. Analysts have told me that they are also concerned about the marketing for Surface RT, which includes a slick TV ad that features dancers rhythmically clcking on the magnetic cover/keyboards to the tablet  and clicking closed the metallic kickstand.  Why not focus on the OS?, the analysts have wondered, amazed.

Well, looking at it from the Microsoft point-of-view,  Microsoft HAS focused on the OS, but also needs to sell the touchscreen hardware, while keeping an eye on Apple and Android makers. They are required to do so much (too much?) to catch up in the tablet realm that the path forward seems to be one that's confused and confusing and not well coordinated.

Microsoft also held a second day of announcements of Windows Phone 8 on Oct. 29 that fairly brilliantly described the virtues of live tiles on smartphones, They included a clever video ad that showed how Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer uses his own Windows Phone 8 smartphone to be kept current on social networks, emails, requests for video chats--all from live tiles on his phone's homescreen.  

Why can't Microsoft effectively show how that remarkable live tile capability in Windows Phone  is really at the heart of Windows 8 for tablets and other devices?  Why can't Microsoft fully integrate the smartphone world with its Windows 8 tablet and laptop worlds?  Is the inability to connect the two because of some corporate culture problem with personnel like Sinofsky?  

Ballmer seems to get the need for this integration, and indicated in a statement about Sinofsky's departure that the company must "continue to drive alignment across all Microsoft teams, and have more integrated and rapid development cycles for our offerings."  

The longstanding lesson from Apple seems fairly clear.  Steve Jobs understood (and all of Apple seem to understand) that the marketing and public presentation of a new technology are integral to the overall product, including its engineering.  Apple always clearly explains why an engineering choice is being made. Their marketing, including TV ads, becomes almost a tutorial for how to use an OS or a product feature. Their engineers seem to be more like marketing gurus, and their marketing folks really seem to get the engineering. Apple actually believes in hands-on, in-store explanations by polite and well-trained clerks and doesn't simply rely on a culture of early adopters who can help initiate a trickle-down of insight to the average users-- like me, much of the time.

I hope Microsoft can make the transition post-Sinofsky go well. The live tiles concept is brilliant and deserves to resonate into a viable competitor in the smartphone and tablet realms, even if it only reaches 10% market share in the next few years. The computing world will be better for the competition.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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