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Steven Sinofsky Looks Back at Microsoft and Ahead to More Disruption

Steven Sinofsky has branched out since leaving Microsoft last year.

The former Windows head is teaching at Harvard, blogging and trying out lots of different technologies. In recent weeks, he has been tweeting from an iPhone and toting around the HTC One.

On Thursday, he’s making his first big public appearance since departing Redmond.

9:26 am: Walt and Kara onstage with Sinofsky.

On leaving Microsoft:

It’s always hard to decide when to change things up.

“You have to pick a time, so I picked a time.”

9:27 am: Walt asks what went into the decision to write a tablet operating system and not restrict it to tablets. Also, what’s your analysis of what appears to be a slow uptake to Windows 8.

Sinofsky: One of the things we tried really hard to do during the development process was be extremely open and transparent about the rationale. Those decisions we made as a team.

Microsoft is now figuring out how to take that forward (they announced some new features of Windows 8.1 earlier Thursday).

As for sales, it’s hard for me to look at selling 100 million of something and not be happy.

9:29 am: So why hasn’t it revived PC sales overall?

Sinofsky: The industry is undergoing a tremendous amount of change. I think that is exciting and it means a lot of opportunity.

It will take a long time for things to play out. It’s exciting but it means while it is going on you have to resist the urge to pick winners and losers. Things are just very different.

The nature of the computer is undergoing a transformation. Form factors of PC is one effect of that but more is going on under the hood. Machines seem off but can be connecting intermittently. That’s a very different paradigm, too. Or the way computers are evolving to be a sealed-case kind of design vs. something that people tinker with and expand over time.

9:31 am: To reach the next billion, you have to seal things up more. I remember when I was 16 and I was looking at cars. My father asked them to open up the hood.

Why are we opening the hood, Sinofsky asked.

Owning a car means fixing a car, his dad told him.

“I am not in the shop class, Dad,” he said “That’s other people.”

Same thing is now going in PCs.

9:33 am: Kara: We’ve seen this train coming for a while. Why didn’t Microsoft shift faster?

Sinofsky: Hoepfully you don’t just want to jump out of the way. You want to move forward with the train.

Microsoft did make a few big transitions, he notes, reacting and changing with the Internet, the shift to cloud computing, etc.

“It’s essentially just a management challenge. It’s very rarely a shortage of ideas.”

9:35 am: Another thing that Sinofsky did was he very enthusiastically headed up Microsoft’s effort to make its own hardware.

Sinofsky holds up a Surface RT.

“I’m doing this for Panos (Panay),” he said, referring to the head of Surface.

9:36 am: Walt: How much friction was there in getting Microsoft to do this?

Sinofsky: What you are seeing in the industry overall is everybody is sort of in everybody’s business. That co-opetition is now much broader than anybody thought it would become.

Companies give away what other companies charge for and that creates disruption. Everybody that makes parts is looking at which parts to deliver.

9:37 am: After years of not doing it, why does it make sense to make your own hardware?

Sinofsky: When you sum up all of the parts of the ecosystem, delivering a great experience is about the connections between all of those parts.

That’s an engineering thing. There are real people that have to sit in an office and have the right code to connect two things. You have to choose which things you are connecting.

9:39 am: Kara: Can you assess the broader landscape? Who is doing it right?
How do you look at a Google or an Apple?

Sinofsky: The whole tech industry is delivering a ton of innovation, he said, something we all lose sight of.

Okay, Walt and Kara say. Having said all that, what do you make of Google and Apple?

Sinofsky: He holds up an HTC One — we are all HTC One users these days. There are positive and negative challenges at Google and Apple.

Using this Android phone. It is amazing in its openness and all its variety. But then the seams, the software that duplicates things. Because of the duplicate home screen thing it actually thinks I am in Portland, Maine, right now.

The design language shows that openness. Lots of dialogue boxes asking if you want to open this program or that program. Those are hard challenges.

Having many people be part of your success, by the way, is a big force multiplier, he said, something Microsoft long benefitted from with Windows.

On Apple: It’s beautiful to use an iPhone — as long as you want do the things it supports.

Apple deserves a lot of credit for iMessage, for example. “It’s really, really nice. But they have to innovate there.”

WhatsApp and WeChat are adding lots of features. But then those services have integration challenges.

The subtlety of being open is hard to get across. There are nefarious app developers out there. Not malware but just developers trying to make their app get seen.

They might have a great calculator but they want to show up everywhere.

(This used to happen all the time with Windows where security and RealPlayer and other apps would pop up all the time in an effort to compete with rivals and, in some cases, Microsoft’s own software.)

9:48 am: Walt and Sinfosky talking about the challenges of app stores and curating when you have a million apps.

All people who do stores — whether for apps or music and video — have to be thinking about better ways of doing without just letting wealthy players buy their way to the top.

Home pages, shopping sites all face that challenge.

“We’re just so early in all of this,” Sinofsky said.

9:51 am: Kara: Where do you want to work next? Would you go to Apple or Google?

Sinofsky: Right now I am in learning mode. Learning by writing, but teaching and visiting in the Valley a lot. That’s tough in the woods in the Northwest, he said.

I am learning a lot, working with small companies, medium companies.

“I’m not in a big rush,” he said, likening his current position to a sabbatical.

9:53 am: On to Q&A.

Does Microsoft have a problem being in the flow of ideas?

Sinofsky: It’s just a general problem of being part of a giant organization anywhere and trying to integrate with other organizations. Large organizations always have a hard time meeting with small organizations.

9:55 am: Is Microsoft best positioned to handle the changes of the enterprise?

Sinofsky: Oh absolutely. One of Microsoft’s core strength is in the enterprise.

9:56 am: What about the innovator’s dilemma? Can companies that have led one wave lead in the next? Even Apple, is reluctant to change the iPhone quickly.

Sinofsky: Business is a social science, not an actual sicence. You can’t draw causal lines. There are no algorithms. As for innovator’s dilemma, it is true that if you don’t do anything it will happen to you. If you act, then you are part of the innovation (and therefore have a chance).

10:00 am: Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have this flat look; iOS sounds like they are moving in that direction. What are your thoughts on flat vs. the other (known as skeumorphic design)?

Sinofsky: I don’t know more or less than what I read about what Apple is doing. It was exciting to be part of a project that changes the design paradigm. He gives a shout-out to Julie Larson-Green and others who led that effort within Microsoft.

“If people follow it can be even better.”

10:03 am: Last question: Windows 8 had a lot of disruption in it. Do you think Microsoft could have done more to make that transition easier?

Sinofsky: “Any time you change a product you introduce that challenge if you have any installed base at all.”

If you have no market or customers then you are only disrupting other companies. “That’s a balance you face in anything you do.”

After a product comes out you can do more or less based on reaction. “There’s no magic answer.”

As Tim Cook said, customers pay you to make a set of choices.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work