'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

Summary: Ray Ozzie's riff on the post-PC world and how complexity kills highlight a technology and management issue for Microsoft---as well as enterprise IT.

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Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's former chief architect, has penned another visionary memo about the post-PC world where he talks about the post-PC world, complexity and how the software giant can adapt to it.

Ozzie arrived at Microsoft with big ideas that were largely implemented---Azure, Office 365, SharePoint etc.---but he couldn't communicate them well generally speaking. His exit blog post talks about how Microsoft has to prepare for a post-PC world.

Last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer played down Ozzie's departure somewhat. He said Ozzie's big thinking is now Microsoft's strategy. Microsoft is all in on the cloud and the services that go with it. Later, however, Ballmer noted that Windows 8 could be the company's riskiest product. Sounds like a bit of a post-PC world worry to me.

More: Microsoft's outgoing Chief Software Architect on the 'post-PC world'

Here's the pertinent part of Ozzie's post:

But as the PC client and PC-based server have grown from their simple roots over the past 25 years, the PC-centric / server-centric model has accreted simply immense complexity.  This is a direct by-product of the PC’s success: how broad and diverse the PC’s ecosystem has become; how complex it’s become to manage the acquisition & lifecycle of our hardware, software, and data artifacts.  It’s undeniable that some form of this complexity is readily apparent to most all our customers:  your neighbors; any small business owner; the ‘tech’ head of household; enterprise IT.

Success begets product requirements.  And even when superhuman engineering and design talent is applied, there are limits to how much you can apply beautiful veneers before inherent complexity is destined to bleed through.

Complexity kills. Complexity sucks the life out of users, developers and IT.  Complexity makes products difficult to plan, build, test and use.  Complexity introduces security challenges.  Complexity causes administrator frustration.

And as time goes on and as software products mature – even with the best of intent – complexity is inescapable.

That passage was notable because it's not just a tech issue. It's a management issue. Can Microsoft really become less complex? Can it develop less complex products? And what does that mean for longevity---Ozzie also noted that Microsoft has benefited from complexity. One thing is certain: Complexity is everywhere in tech. Enterprise IT projects are complex squared and many times management makes it more complex.

Ozzie's indirect comparison to Apple throughout his blog post was also notable. It just so happens that Bloomberg Businessweek did an article on former Apple CEO John Sculley and his experience being the boss of Steve Jobs. In the article, Sculley gave a history lesson of his tenure and how Jobs should have been CEO then, but wasn't. But the relevant passage from the article is this one from Sculley about Jobs:

An anecdotal story: A friend of mine was at meetings at Apple and Microsoft on the same day. And this was in the last year, so this was recently. He went into the Apple meeting (he's a vendor for Apple), and as soon as the designers walked in the room, everyone stopped talking, because the designers are the most respected people in the organization. Everyone knows the designers speak for Steve because they have direct reporting to him. It is only at Apple where design reports directly to the CEO.

Later in the day he was at Microsoft. When he went into the Microsoft meeting, everybody was talking and then the meeting starts and no designers ever walk into the room. All the technical people are sitting there trying to add their ideas of what ought to be in the design. That's a recipe for disaster.

Everyone around him knows he beats to a different drummer. He sets standards that are entirely different than any other CEO would set.

He's a minimalist and constantly reducing things to their simplest level. It's not simplistic. It's simplified. Steve is a systems designer. He simplifies complexity.

Now Jobs is one of a kind. The big question is whether Microsoft can simplify. And if you zoom out a bit you wonder if this industry beyond Jobs can simplify. You see Android splintering and becoming complex. You see legacy apps that remain in all of their complex glory. You see cloud players like Salesforce.com talking simplicity, but we all know SaaS sprawl and managing it is around the corner.

Can Microsoft eradicate complexity? Can you?

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Topics: CXO, Apple, Hardware, Microsoft, IT Employment

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28 comments
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  • Spaghetti vs. Modular

    Spaghetti:
    http://i.zdnet.com/blogs/SysCallIIS.jpg
    Modular:
    http://i.zdnet.com/blogs/SysCallApache.jpg

    Now, I realize that coding an O/S is difficult, but Linux has conquered complexity with careful design and modularity.

    Some argue that the time is near for a complete rewrite of Linux, but it has a long way to go before anything the likes of that happens. And the Linux kernel releases keep getting churned out in a timely fashion.

    You go Linus.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • A rewrite of Linux

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate

      A rewrite of Linux may be a good idea. You do realize that since the above graphs were produced, IIS have been rewritten from the ground up? To the extend where it is far more modular than Apache?

      Who knows, perhaps a rewrite of Linux may eventually produce a desktop OS which can play back multimedia while doing a file copy at the same time? That would be great!
      honeymonster
      • Play back multimedia while doing a file copy

        @honeymonster Yesterday, while backing up everything on my ancient crappy laptop (running Ubuntu 8) onto an external drive, I also played some recorded radio programmes. And everything worked perfectly.

        TRiG.
        Timothy (TRiG)
      • RE: 'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

        @Timothy (TRiG)
        You'll have to forgive honeymonster. He's never had the technical ability to get Linux to work. In spite of all his grand words.
        LTV10
      • file copy and multimedia

        @honeymonster
        i tend to copy a movie over the network and start watching the version on my machine before the transfer is complete because i can be a bit impatient sometimes. Even though the transfer wasn't complete when i start watching i get to see the complete movie.

        File transfers seem a lot faster in linux. Movies seem to work fine for me and anyone i set-up dual-boots for. Windows doesn't seem to be able to do that. It can't even let me open a spreadsheet before copying is complete let alone a movie file.

        Regards from
        Tom :)
        Tom6
      • RE: 'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

        @honeymonster Dude, check that ACHI NCQ is working & that PIO modes (none of them) are being used.

        Seriously... This is not a Linux (Kernel) issue it is a configuration one.
        scott2010au
  • An army of designers

    MS' underlying technologies are for the most part fine. The company just needs to replicate what it did for Windows Phone 7, by using design to continually make its products slick, delightful, and relatively easy to use. MS also needs to be holistic in its execution of its technologies. E.g. its previous tablet efforts failed because touch computing was tagged on to Windows - rather than used to produce a whole, fully baked, delightful user experience. Also there was no app ecosystem or advertising provided to support the effort.

    I hope MS executes well on tablets. MS tablets need at the very least, a standard, well designed touch UI shell, that takes people into a touch computing only world. The shell should never launch regular Windows applications like Notepad or MS Word. The shell should only launch applications built with (real) touch UIs. If the user wants to go back to regular Windows and Windows applications, he can minimize or close the shell. But the two Windows experiences should be distinct and separate. Also the shell needs to be supported by some kind of app store, for it to credibly challenge Apple.
    P. Douglas
    • Ain't gonna happen. The situation is the same when

      I applied for a company run by E.E.s. Everyone had to have a E.E. degree. Including HR, sales, and even the graphic artist so they would "know what the hell they were doing."

      The mentality rules in software, too. Non-programmers need not apply.
      frgough
    • Viruses?

      @P. Douglas <br>The underlaying technologies are far from fine when the systems are so shockingly vulnerable to viruses and malware. Given that non-Windows OSes have little or no vulnerabilities it is amazing that people continue to use Windows.<br><br>People who are serious about security and need robust systems, such as command&control in the space-station, use non-Windows systems. People who want to have a constant worry about security, such as the people inside the space-station, are happy to use Windows and seem quite fine about the risks of infection.<br><br>Regards from<br>Tom <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/happy.gif" alt="happy">
      Tom6
      • RE: 'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

        @Tom6<br><br>You are confusing "vulnerability" with "popularity". Are you really under the impression that other OSes have "little or no" vulnerabilities?<br><br>BTW, check out these defacement statistics:<br><a href="http://zone-h.org/news/id/4735" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://zone-h.org/news/id/4735</a><br><br>Total defacements:<br>Year Linux Windows<br>2006 446.039 258.129 <br>2007 305.968 139.427 <br>2008 352.449 141.061 <br>2009 378.728 143.151 <br>2010 256.648 87.959

        EDIT:
        Even some more stats for you: Even though Secunia claims there are no unpatched vulnerabilities for Ubuntu here:

        http://secunia.com/advisories/product/28063/?task=statistics_2010

        ...when you go to Canonical's website, you see a completely different picture:

        http://people.canonical.com/~ubuntu-security/cve/main.html

        See those yellow and orange cells? Those are unpatched. Also, while they are not listed there as high severity, when you follow some of the CVE links, they are indeed listed as high severity. So basically:

        - Secunia's statistics are clearly unreliable when looking at Ubuntu vulnerabilities (and pretty much any Linux distro).
        - There are more security vulnerabilities patched per year in Ubuntu than there is in Windows.

        So I wonder, will you still be singing the same tune of "other OSes have "little or no" vulnerabilities? Shall we bring up the total number of OS X vulnerabilities patched vs Windows as well...?
        Qbt
  • Tangled web

    While I buy the complexity argument (since I read Dijkstra's Structured Programming when it was new in 1972!) ... I think the complexity of Windows is largely of Microsoft's making.

    "Can Microsoft eradicate complexity? Can you?"
    Very easily - here's a worked example using Windows 7 Explorer and Windows Home Server where I will eliminate an operating system and several top level branches in a file structure display.

    1. Why does Windows 7 Explorer show Favourites, Libraries and Homegroup by default? Many users never operate with Explorer, let alone Libraries!
    Nor is there any need to show Network on many occasions ... until you decide to have a file server. Then all you need is the same thing you had for your own files ... but via a list of networked machines ... but what does M$ do ...

    2. Windows Home Server. Instead of simply nominating one machine on a network as the file server ... we have to have an additional machine and an entirely new OS. Both are unnecessary, which brings me too ...
    ... the reason for the complexity is to bind customers into continued purchases of inefficient products.

    "Ozzie also noted that Microsoft has benefited from complexity."
    No kidding! What a lucky accident for M$ that their deliberate Profit Driven Technology Decisions proved beneficial to the bottom line.

    I think the article has it: M$ management are holding back their design talent.

    A low risk option for Windows 8 would be send the senior management team on a 2 year training course so that the designers could work unchained.

    An appropriate saying comes to mind:
    "Oh what a tangled web we weave,
    When first we practise to deceive."
    jacksonjohn
    • So Microsoft is not complex after all, it's merely complicated

      @johnfenjackson@... <br><br><i>"I think the complexity of Windows is largely of Microsoft's making."</i><br><br>Complication arises when you, out of an inability to do it better, adopt convoluted approaches when simpler alternatives would work better. Complexity, on the other hand is something that's inherent to the system, it's something you simply cannot get rid of.<br><br>So yes, Microsoft's is complicated because its approach is always to complicate things unnecessarily. They approach things in a convoluted way when simpler solutions which are readily available only not immediately apparent would work much better.<br><br>But complication always generates entropy and entropy alone is pushing Microsoft's demise closer and closer.
      OS Reload
  • RE: 'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

    I just downloaded and installed a new ROM for my AT&T Tilt 2 smartphone. It had become available at the end of August 2010, and it supposedly had some stability and performance improvements worth the trouble. One thing I did note was that HTC's custom user interface was changed from the previous TouchFlo 3D to Sense 3D. Oh well...

    Yeah. The installation went well, no problems, and I was able to reinstall all my apps and get them running. And then I began to really deal with the changes that the new ROM had wrought.

    For instance, the old code had a weather app on the home screen that updated at user-selectable intervals. The new UI had something similar, but it was frozen into the location I had been at when I had first used the phone, and weather conditions that had been present at that time. I could add another location, but the home screen always defaulted to that original time and place, even after a weekend had gone by.

    Other bits and pieces of usefulness were no longer present, like the Windows Mobile 6.5 Task Manager, for instance. Application shortcuts, which had previously had their own tab on the TouchFlo 3D slider, were now limited to the new home screen, and maxed out at 9, versus several times that many in the old UI. Settings were now harder to access in some cases, and were non-functional or not explained in others.

    In short, the new ROM was a major step backward in terms of usability.

    Is this a result of complexity trumping usefulness? Or is it the product of an overly complex product just breaking under the load of its own serpentine nature?

    I don't know the answer to that, but I do know what I've done. Since HTC has made it hard to reinstall the old ROM, I've taken matters into my own hands and recast the Today screen in a simple mode. I've turned off Windows Default, Sense 3D, and only have Date and Time, Calendar, Tasks, and Messaging running. It's wonderfully simple, clean, and distinctly un-busy. No bogus Weather app. No limitation on application shortcuts - I just open up the Start Menu. And one thing that it forces me to do - I spend less time messing around with my phone, because it's marginally less convenient to use (it takes a couple of more taps to access some functions). My Today screen is saving me from my (stupid)phone. And I didn't even need to get a new Windows Phone 7 device to accomplish that! Yay for simplicity!
    Den2010
  • RE: 'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

    Oh, if only people on a daily basis could experience the hell that is a Windows hive corruption on an OEM system! That unfathomable abomination that is the Windows registry and all the things that go haywire if one of the files is screwed with no replacement! If only the average tech or even end user had the opportunity to see everything that goes nuts because of incorrect entries or incorrect paths, oh the world would finally understand just how bad this crap is! I spent 6 hours of head bleeding agony trying to fix a system for a person who desperately needed there system to be up and running when the SAM and SYSTEM files corrupted (and its not the only time I've gone through this). No backup hive files because it was a Dell, where the repair registry files contain passwords not known to the user. A Windows re-install failed with an internal error and I had to do a fresh install to another drive and then copy the files. The system booted unbelievably slow and then I spent hours trying to correct problems, including permissions that should have been included when joining a domain. In hindsight I should have told them to buy a new computer and just move their documents and reinstall the software. And people still think this is somehow better that other options. It truly boggles the mind.
    I12BPhil
    • RE: 'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

      @I12BPhil
      Amen. We all need to start charging by the hour, and a sanity surcharge, for Windows work.
      bstaud@...
  • RE: 'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

    At some point I'll read all this but after 40+ straight hours (no those aren't workday hours) of trying to get Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager to work for OS Deployment across a multi-site infrastructure, I can say that complexity may not kill. But it will make you tired.
    hawks5999
  • RE: 'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

    Here's something I've learned from quite a few years in the industry: If you want to make the user interface simpler - the programming behind it is going to need to be more complex. And I presume we are talking about simplifying the user interface here, not what the IT staff sees. There is something else I've learned - and this relates more to corporate than personal use (although I expect there is some correlation: The simpler you make the user experience, the stupider the users get. OK - that's a bit cynical, but it sure seems that way. If they don't HAVE to think.... they won't. <br><br>As to being able to organize things to simplify them, here's one more nugget: not everyone organizes everything the same way. People have their own way of categorizing things in their heads, and it would be useful - I think - for people to be able to organize their computer systems (especially the user interface) to suit themselves. One nice way to get a good start on this: Make it very easy and intuitive to modify the menu system. This could take some very talented designers and programmers. Just an idea: Why limit the menu to one small corner of the screen, especially if you have dozens or hundreds of programs on your system? Why not use the entire screen - it would be a lot easier to use, I think.
    mitch@...
  • Ozzie is correct, but Microsoft THRIVES on complexity.

    Let me offer a few examples:
    (1) If "Office" Document file formats were made less complex, then lower-cost competitors would be able to import and export them more accurately. MS would lose license seats.
    (2) If Exchange file formats and communications protocols were made less complex, ditto. (For both Servers AND Outlook Clients, as well as revenue from company's who need Microsoft's help to understand the complexities which Microsoft uses.)

    Microsoft adds complexity to every product Release, partly to assure that competitors remain unable to maintain compatibility. But, as Ray eloquently points out, this process ultimately immobilizes MS Developers too: even WITH access to all the code and documentation, it reaches a point where they can't touch it without accidentally breaking something. Confusing, sneaky "tricks" and weirdness, originally put it to make Windoze programs and file formats incomprehensible to competitors, now have the same effect in Microsoft's own shop. Thus, new Development, and even bug-fixing, occurs at a glacial pace -- even when the workers are extremely talented.
    Rick S._z
  • Ozzie is correct, but Microsoft THRIVES on complexity.

    Let me offer a couple of examples:
    (1) If "Office" Document file formats were made less complex, then lower-cost competitors would be able to import and export them more accurately. MS would lose license seats.
    (2) If Exchange file formats and communications protocols were made less complex, ditto. (For both Servers AND Outlook Clients, as well as revenue from company's who need Microsoft's help to understand the complexities which Microsoft uses.)

    Microsoft adds complexity to every product Release, partly to assure that competitors remain unable to maintain compatibility. But, as Ray eloquently points out, this process ultimately immobilizes MS Developers too: even WITH access to all the code and documentation, it reaches a point where they can't touch it without accidentally breaking something. Confusing, sneaky "tricks" and weirdness, originally put it to make Windoze programs and file formats incomprehensible to competitors, now have the same effect in Microsoft's own shop. Thus, new Development, and even bug-fixing, occurs at a glacial pace -- even when the workers are extremely talented.
    Rick S._z
  • Microsoft and Cisco both profit from Complexity

    The two companies should get engaged.
    Microsoft Lync and Cisco UCM are the two most complex solutions on the market, both taking weeks of training and engineers with degrees costing $100k+ per install.

    Take a closer look at ShoreTel. The TCO is proven to be lower. If you dont, find alot of shelf space for the Cisco 3,400 page manual for troubleshooting, next to the Microsoft 1,900 page manuals on Lync.
    gutnick