Windows Live strategy session: “Go Ahead and Be Honest”

Larry Hyrb, known to the Xbox Live community as “Major Nelson“, revealed that he will be in a meeting next week with Ray Ozzie, among others, to talk about the future of Live Services at Microsoft.  Major Nelson asked on his blog for suggestions or questions to bring to the table, and as of this writing he’s received almost 900 comments.

Early next week I am attending a small internal meeting where many of the key service decision makers (like Ray Ozzie) from across the company are going to get together and have an open discussion about our service offerings, compare practices, and talk strategy. What do you think we don’t ‘get’? I know Google may be better in some areas, but what makes them better? What makes us not as good?

If you had ten minutes with the CTO of Microsoft, what kind of advice would you offer? What questions would you ask? During the two day meeting, I’ll be sharing some of the comments here with the attendees to let them know what the community thinks of the companies offerings and strategy. So go ahead and be honest, I’m listening and I’ll share it with the right people next week.

Somewhat coincidentally, some notable Microsoft employees voted with their feet this week, as Erik Selberg from Live Search, Danny Thorpe from Windows Live Platform, Bubba Murarka from Windows Live, and Bungie all announced their intention to leave the company.  People come and go in any business, so it isn’t right to point to a few individuals announcing the end of their employment and draw conclusions, but the Bungie announcement adds a bit of perspective.  Its pretty clear that the creative / innovative types at Bungie were unhappy with their relationship with Microsoft, to the point that a significant exodus was brewing if they were to have to remain Microsoft employees. On their blog entry announcing the split, Bungie said:

Bungie has long been built on creativity, originality and the freedom to pursue ideas. Microsoft agreed, and rather than stifle our imagination, they decided it was in both our best interests to unleash it.

And from the email sent to Seattle PI blogger Jake Metcalf, who broke the story last week:

Apparently MS just wants Bungie to make Halo for the rest of their natural days, and Bungie doesn’t like how MS is constantly trying to “handle” everything they do; the way they market their games, the way they interact with their fans (basically the fact that they do appreciate their fans), and how stingie they are with the profits (comparable to the rest of the industry).

Bubba Murarka gained a bit of notoriety within the company last year as he published a Think Week paper, An Exit Interview, that caused quite a stir.  Bubba wrote on his blog about it, summing up the purpose of the piece:

My goal with trying to impact the culture at MSFT started out of pure self interest – how can I stop complaining and actually change things that bothered me.  Specifically, I was concerned about what it would take for me to continue working at microsoft from a variety of angles. My key questions were/are:

  • Is this the place to build world class consumer internet software?  Can we make decisions fast?
  • Does the senior leadership care about the “newer” (near) leaf node people at the company?
  • Why are there so many “secrets” and “hidden” programs?  Do they have to be opaque?
  • What is the opportunity at MSFT to reach a level of impact that moves the needle and changes the marketplace?
  • How much upside is there from a personal financial point of view?  Is it interesting enough to work hard to get it?

So, since Major Nelson has been so kind as to ask the question, and since LiveSide has never been shy about voicing an opinion, of course we have some advice:

First: Develop a solid, deep-rooted, fast moving, and complete transition into Live Services.

I spoke to an ex-Microsoft employee when I was at Gnomedex this summer, who told me that the culture at Microsoft was to treat anything but Windows programming as “not real programming”.  AJAX and Web Services work were looked down upon, he felt.  We’ve certainly seen numerous instances where Windows Live and live services have been treated with pretty much open derision by others within the company.  The man to lead this charge, of course, is Ray Ozzie, but all he has done since he’s arrived from an external viewpoint is given the same lofty speech about Software + Services over and over again.  ‘Softies refer to Ozzie’s “pet projects”, while externally no one knows whether the company is really behind the live services vision.  The first hurdle is to convince Microsoft employees that the world has changed, that it is time to re-invigorate or lose.  When the Windows Live initiative was first announced, the idea was promoted that the fresh faces and fresh ideas at MSN would teach the old guard at Windows how to be innovative and ship quickly.  Instead, the level of innovation and the turnaround time for new products coming out of Windows Live has slowed tremendously, and it appears that Windows has taught Windows Live how to be stifling and stodgy.  Microsoft needs to learn how to get out of its own way, to ship quickly, with fresh innovative content, and a focus on the Live Services vision.

Next: Put names and faces on the future of Microsoft: to gain trust, to show leadership, and to focus the vision.

Microsoft is suffering mightily with the perception that it is a nameless, faceless, overbearing “Borg”, intent to destroy rather than empower, that its purpose in moving into new markets is to “Win” at the cost of all others losing, that it is not to be trusted.  In some respects, as the richest man in the world and a man driven to success, Bill Gates has personified that relentless overbearing Microsoft of old.  If the live services are to succeed, they need more than good technology, they need support from the hearts and minds of the community.  Of course Ray Ozzie is key here, and from an external standpoint he has been a dismal failure up until now.  Ray Ozzie looks like he could be a kinder, gentler software visionary, and indeed the things he believes in could and should change the way we interact with computers and the internet.  He needs to sell that vision, first as I said above within the company, but just as importantly he needs to get out here and talk to us.

But Microsoft is a big company, with many services to sell, and one person does not need to do it all.  The power of blogging, although it is supported much more at Microsoft than at many other companies, is largely untapped.  When Steven Sinofsky took over as head of engineering for Windows and Windows Live, he clamped down on blogging about what ‘Softies are most passionate about: the future.  The “secrets and hidden programs” mentality that Bubba references didn’t start with Sinofsky, but he’s reinforced it, and that is hurting Microsoft’s ability to be more transparent about what it is doing and why it’s going to be good for us.  Major Nelson has provided a face for Xbox Live, and the gamers eat it up.  Here’s someone within the company that wants to know what they think!  My guess is that Steven Sinofsky is going to be at that set of meetings, too.  Where is he to ask us what we think?

Finally: Openly and honestly face the future.

Microsoft is in a unique position to lead us into a new era of connected living.  It possesses the massive scale necessary to connect up our online lives, an evolving but deep rooted commitment to security and privacy, a world-centric vision, and the tools and talents to put it all together. What Microsoft lacks for this transition into live services is support: from within the company,  from a distrustful public, and from competitors and partners that have been treated badly or swallowed whole.  And yet gaining trust and support is the one area Microsoft places the least emphasis.  That trust can only be gained by embracing honesty at the risk of letting a few secrets slip through, by supporting innovation without “trying to handle”, and thereby stifling, creativity, and by recognizing what power real interaction with real people has on how Microsoft is perceived.