Microsoft, carve your path

Mr. Nadella, as the new CEO of Microsoft, you and the company you now lead are receiving an avalanche of unsolicited advice, as if Microsoft were on the precipice of implosion.

Most of that advice re-affirms the plans you already have in mind. Be more like Apple. Be more like Google. Be more like Amazon. Be more like those companies because those companies are good, and Microsoft is bad. Stop being bad.

I'm here to say that advice may be a load of bull. I say carve your own path.

Yes, you were bad and you have remnants of bad still to purge. Continue that purge and improve. Anyone paying attention to Microsoft knows the company has taken ownership of some past stupidity and appears genuinely interested in improvement. That is precisely how you carve your own path: you recognize past failures and experiment with new ideas and improvements.

Following others is an easy way out. It short-circuits the risk of experimentation. It affords you the luxury to point to others' success as short-term rationale and then scapegoat them when you fail.

So much of the advice given since your big promotion has been an echo of technology's pop culture. Pop culture captured a visage of Microsoft forged in the 1990s and hasn't loosened its grip since. For some, there is no redemption outside of penance at their chosen altar. Behave as a clone of their favored firms—ingratiate via imitation rather than innovation—and they may deign forgiveness.

Screw that.

I don't want a clone of Google, Apple, and Amazon. And neither should you. I don't want another cloud-first, mobile-first technology titan. That market is saturated. I am awash with cloud-first, mobile-first options. What I want and what I believe will pique consumer interest is a tech titan focused on users, their data, and their applications first. Devices can then fit and adapt to view those applications secondarily.

Are we going to get some new thinking from a titan this decade or do we expect new thinking to only come from the bottom up?

I want a technology titan focused on empowering individuals and groups to use technology on their own terms, for their own benefit. In common vernacular, I want to buy your product and not be your product.

I am tired of being the product.

Cloud-first, mobile-first? 2014 is high time to think beyond the surrender-your-life cloud and the spoiled, sibling rivalry of attention-vying portable first-class-compute devices—today's smartphone and tablet. Microsoft should be about giving us back our data and our applications and then unifying the computing model across all devices, making what we call "phones" today into mere portable terminals—views on the applications we use everywhere—desktop, laptop, work, home, on the road, and in the living room. The same applications should be available everywhere, singular running instances, with singular persistent state, for the personal utility of their user or users.

It should be personal-first, omnipresence-first. Applications that run for you exclusively, according to your preferences, and are available to you from every device you use.

The concept of a "phone" is due for retirement. The device we carry with us should be a mobile view on our holistic personal computing world that spans all our devices. A mobile device should not be a first-class computer in its own right. Without reservation, a mobile device should never be the exclusive means to interact with any application, because it should not be where applications execute but rather just one place applications are viewed.

A voice communication application—call it a "phone" application if you must—is just one of many applications that should be available for viewing on any device, including the small screen we put in our pockets, the large screen in our living room, and any other devices in our arsenal.

The cloud

To users, the cloud should be how your data gets from you to your friends, not a tangle of vendors taking ownership of everything we create and the very means of that creation. When opinionated dinosaurs like myself joke that the cloud is a new name for the Internet and nothing more, we're half-joking, half-serious. What we want the cloud to be is what we used to call the Internet—a collection of protocols to communicate and share with one another.

But that isn't what what the cloud actually is. The cloud is actually a bunch of vendors vying for control of content creation, discovery, and delivery. Microsoft should rise above that all-too-easy temptation to control content creation and delivery. Facilitate those actions, but do not control them. Be the titan that champions open protocols to share photos, to stream music and video, to collaborate. Innovate there since virtually no titan has been willing to do so for years, everyone else having favored the approach that leads to facile tactics such as "I'll just host the photos for you since you wouldn't know how to do that anyway."

Make "sharing" mean "serving" rather than "enabling access by other consumers of this particular intermediary." Serving should be demystified and utterly commonplace. The insufferable neglect of Internet peer-to-peer technology has entrenched the lamentable notions that servers are special, delivery of content is the dominion of companies only, and that it's acceptable for Internet connectivity to be asymmetric.

It's a persistent confluence of technology indolence that recursively rationalizes mediocrity. We don't need better upload speed because no one serves anything anyway. We don't serve anything because upload speed is crap. We shove every imaginable communication over HTTP because we firewalled every other TCP port. We firewalled every other TCP port because we only ever use HTTP. We stopped innovating file systems because no one wants to manage files. No one wants to manage files because file systems are impossible for laypeople to understand.

Step back, re-evaluate the current state of the Internet, and seriously consider a reset that embraces peer-to-peer. Consider what it could look like with a titan like Microsoft saying, This is how the Internet should work. It should exist to benefit users; not us. We will facilitate, but we will not be another gatekeeper or intermediary.

The cloud should be all of us. It's users, not companies.

Mobile

Mobile should be subservient to a more general concept: computing. Microsoft's goal should be to allow users to use the same applications from a portable view, desktop view, or any type of view as if it's routine. Take a moment to reflect on the stupidity of having to run a separate e-mail client on your desktop, your tablet, and your phone. Three separate applications doing the same thing.

Now add another tablet and your living room screen. Do you install another e-mail client on each of those? Now think about your web browser, your IM client, your telephony, your contacts list, your calendar, and everything else. It's application chaos caused by every device being a first-class computer and not simply a view on singular applications you select and install once.

Today's world is a world of first-class computing device overload.

To-date, this chaos has been imperfectly solved by the cloud. The premise being: Don't use traditional e-mail applications, consign your e-mail needs to gmail. Don't receive your IMs directly. Have them sent to a third-party server for you to read via the web. Trust us, we'll keep them secure!

And yet, of all places, mobile is where we still enjoy a manner of local applications, applications that run just for us.

The chief problem with today's mobile is that it's considered orthogonal to other forms of computing and not an integral part of computing in general.

For all the crap Windows 8 gets (much of it is deserved), conceptually, a singular motif across multiple contexts represents steps taken in the right direction. Many more steps remain, and they are even more difficult than those you've taken already. Furthermore, some steps you've taken should be reconsidered or outright reversed. But the underlying theory—which is at a high-level that all computing in your life should be consistent—is an early way-point on the long path.

Keep moving along that path and you eventually arrive at what I consider nirvana: a single application instance for each role running on an application server the user controls and views from multiple devices, seamlessly and concurrently.

Harmony is more than a consistent visual motif. True harmony will need application omnipresence.

Don't be selfish and don't be a follower

Being cloud-first means being selfish. Rather than putting R&D money in play to empower users to self-manage data and applications with ease, the plain cloud removes the power of the consumer in a guise of short-term convenience. It's so hard to share photos, so we'll take care of that. It's so hard to keep your data backed up, so we'll take care of that. Gradually more users are realizing the "we'll take care of that" is a double-edged sword.

Instead of cloud-first, focus on open peer-to-peer encrypted network protocols for communication, content sharing, collaboration, storage, federated backup, the works.

Being mobile-first means being a follower, only willing to imagine where small-screen devices lead us, and most likely playing second-fiddle to the incumbents because you were unwilling to shake things up. Apple is mobile-first. Amazon is mobile-first. Google, via Android and Chrome OS, is mobile-first. Is there no room for something a little different, a little more experimental?

Instead of mobile-first, users and applications come first. All views, mobile included, are a secondary matter.

I never think, "I need my smartphone; now I need to contact my wife." Rather, I think, "I need to contact my wife. What device do I have at my ready?" Every application should be visible from every device, so whatever means I want to use to make contact—SMS, IM, phone call, Skype, e-mail, IRC, whatever—should be at my command whether I am at a large screen at my desk or holding my tablet.

Fans of other platforms routinely criticize Microsoft for going their own way, implying or outright declaring that Microsoft should just discard Trident and adopt Webkit, or scrap Windows Phone and adopt Android. These critics would say stop carving your own path and get in line with the path carved by others, subject to their whims.

That may yield some success. Maybe even a great deal.

But as a consumer, I am passionate that I don't want the Microsoft cart put into all of the grooves cut by Google, Apple, and Amazon. Doing so unnecessarily narrows the breadth of experimentation. It gives the industry less statistical chance of offering something new to enchant and obsess my interest.

In ten years, I don't want to feel even further removed from control of my computing resources, further removed from my data and how it is used, and further confused by the multitude of disjoint devices demanding my attention as if they're the only thing I own.

For my part, I say be the exception to the rule and challenge the accepted wisdom of cloud-first, mobile-first. Be suspicious of the motives of those suggesting you adopt a follower's stance.

While I have not revised my older but more numerous thoughts on Microsoft, that old rant is nevertheless worth taking a look at.
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