One Microsoft Way: Football, baseball and strategy

Will reorganising to play together better help Microsoft win more users and make the most of Microsoft Research?
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

I've sometimes joked that you can tell a lot about Apple and Microsoft from the addresses they choose for their campuses.

Apple's aesthetics and the way it looks internally rather than externally for its direction both fit perfectly with One Infinite Loop. So what does One Microsoft Way tell us?

Although it ignores the hard work, dedication and improved collaboration in Redmond over the past few years (which has put Office on Windows Phone, Skype on Xbox, Yammer inside SharePoint and plenty of other cross-division integrations), Microsoft's entry in the humorous org charts that did the rounds last year has made at least a few of the ex-Microsoft folk I've shown it to both smile and wince before telling me why it's not actually like that.

But the brand-new Microsoft redraws that org chart to encapsulate and restates the principles of One Microsoft Way. It's not devices versus services or consumer versus enterprise or Xbox versus Windows. It's One Microsoft, "focusing the whole company on a single strategy", as Steve Ballmer's email to Microsoft staff puts it.

In fact, Ballmer recognises that those divisions don't reflect the real world or that the way modern life for most of us is less about work-life balance and more about work-life blend (I think of it as getting little bits of work ice all through the coffee of my life, Frappuccino style).

Devices, he points out, will have "both consumer and enterprise services".

"We are rallying behind a single strategy as one company — not a collection of divisional strategies. Although we will deliver multiple devices and services to execute and monetize the strategy, the single core strategy will drive us to set shared goals for everything we do.

"We will see our product line holistically, not as a set of islands. We will allocate resources and build devices and services that provide compelling, integrated experiences across the many screens in our lives, with maximum return to shareholders. All parts of the company will share and contribute to the success of core offerings, like Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox, Surface, Office 365 and our EA offer, Bing, Skype, Dynamics, Azure and our servers. All parts of the company will contribute to activating high-value experiences for our customers."

What does that look like? "One experience, one company, one set of learnings, one set of apps, and one personal library of entertainment, photos and information everywhere… Microsoft has the clear opportunity to offer consumers a unified experience across all aspects of their life, whether the screen is a small wearable, a phone, a tablet, an 85-inch display or other screens and devices we have not yet even imagined."

With Ballmer mentioning wearables explicitly, maybe we'll see even see a Surface Phone watch?

Ballmer wants "a more coherent message", "an integrated strategy" reflecting "one company with integrated approaches" that's gone from "disparate engineering efforts" to planning across the company for "integrated devices and services".

In other words, collaboration has been getting better, but now engineering is one single group and the four areas of Microsoft engineering are there as much to help each other as to deliver one area's products. On a call to discuss the re-org with investors, he credited the former Bing chief and new head of app engineering Qi Lu with a useful sports metaphor. "We have to be more like a football team where we all play a specific position and deliver a play together, rather than a baseball team, which is more individual." He also put it a little more plainly: "We'll have people collaborating when they need to, not duplicating efforts."

It's not about Ballmer taking more direct control or removing responsibility from the heads of the different Microsoft teams, either — at least from his perspective. "A company this size doesn't run in any one person's brain," he said on the call. "It's a much better way to run the company, now we have a whole group involved in the company strategy."

There's no perfect logical arrangement for any set of products, but having Outlook.com and Outlook and Outlook Web Access and the Windows 8 Mail app and the Windows Phone inbox app in one place should do away with questions such as: "why is do the interfaces of Outlook.com and Outlook Web Access look so similar but put key features in different places?" Making SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro (and SharePoint libraries and the Office Upload Center) look like pieces of the same puzzle rather than farm animals from entirely different boxes of toys would avoid confusion.

"One store for everything": that sounds like not just apps that can run both on Windows and Windows Phone — which we know from job adverts and Kevin Turner's slides at the Worldwide Partner Conference that Microsoft is working on — but also on Xbox. With common core and more importantly, with sandboxes and testing and approval processes that make sure apps are well behaved — it's much safer for Microsoft to open up Xbox as a platform.

Are there issues with splitting devices and operating systems apart? "I think it's a perfect way for us to work," Julie Larson-Green said on the call, pointing out that she and Terry Myerson have already been working together for quite some time (at least four years, between Windows and Windows Phone and longer if you count the Office document support in Windows Mobile before that). She also noted that the new structure goes across product divisions and involves having champions for specific products (they report to Steve Ballmer as well).

OEMs might like the fact that the OS sits under Myerson with devices elsewhere; he pointed out that he'll be working with "innovative ideas from OEM partners and Julie's team" to build "a platform that needs to span from whiteboards to phones and beyond".

So the next time someone suggests a new device such as Courier, it's going to run whichever slice of the Windows platform that makes sense — not a new and different OS the way the original Xbox did and Courier would have.

Maybe more of those innovative ideas will come from Microsoft Research and answer some of those frustrating questions about why so few of the really exciting projects from MSR show up in products. Explaining some of the issues the re-org was intended to address, Ballmer commented that: "If you subdivide the thing into too fine a set of parts you don't think about your R&D as a general resource that should be repurposed and used very broadly— it's 'my resources, my business'."

Another change should get more out of MSR. Former head of research Rick Rashid gets a new role "driving core OS innovation in [the] operating systems group". Microsoft has several research projects into next generation operating systems. Experiment 19 was a skunkworks project using MinWin that started in 2008 to show that Windows would run better on ARM hardware that Windows CE did; it did well enough to start Microsoft building Windows RT and using the Windows kernel for Windows Phone.

So far, only a few concepts from the Drawbidge and Singularity research OSes have made it into Windows but Microsoft will need big advances for the major Windows versions that will follow a few years of incremental annual improvements such as Windows 8.1 and 8.2.

So far, so much more collaboration and alignment. But of course, there are potential drawbacks. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many engineering resources available and everything that one team does to support another might mean they have less time to do something important for their own vision. If one product is ready to add a key new feature it shouldn't get held up because another product isn't ready to implement a related feature.

But with updates and new versions coming much more quickly (every two to three weeks for Azure, three times a year for Visual Studio, three to four times a year for Office server, several times a year for the Office applications and the apps like Mail that come with Windows, and once a year for Windows itself — and probably Windows Phone and Xbox too), we shouldn't be waiting as long for features and integrations to catch up.

Although even on cloud, this faster cadence is still frustrating sometimes; 75 percent of Office 365 customers have been upgraded to the Office 2013 platform, but we're in the 25 percent that has been waiting since February. Plus making this much of a change could be distracting to teams that are trying to build products faster than ever.

If it works out, the results of this re-org could be less like a three-legged race and more like the Three Musketeers; all for one and one for all. And speaking as a user, as Tim Curry's Cardinal Richelieu puts it in my favourite film version puts it, "all for one" means "more for me".

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