Open Letter to Steve Ballmer

May 14, 2013

Steve Ballmer
Chief Executive Officer
Microsoft Corp.

Dear Steve,

Most companies are schools of fish doing well to swim in synch in the ocean of complexity around us. Microsoft got used to being much further up the food chain.

A big reason was your use of customer-facing organizing principles. Windows and Office weren't just products; they provided context for everything the majority of us wanted to do with our PCs.

Alas, at least for the use of Windows and Office as organizing principles, we are moving into the post-PC era. It must be frustrating that the harder you push them onto devices other than PCs, the faster they decline.

The architect Louis Kahn famously had a conversation with a brick about arches and lintels. You need to have a conversation with a tablet about Windows and Office. The tablet doesn’t want to be treated like a junior PC or an over-sized smartphone. It wants to be a new way of doing what it does, even for those activities we've been doing on PCs for years.

A big difference is that mobile devices are themselves an organizing principle, whereas PCs are in need of an organizing principle. Adding another layer of navigation (Windows) and content interaction (Office) on top just doesn’t work. (Nor does the associated branding, as John Gruber pointedly observed in a recent Talk Show podcast.) 

This isn’t to say that tablets don’t want to work with Office documents or Windows desktops, but they need to do it their way, and that way is emphatically not the PC way.

Mobile devices are fundamentally "serial single purpose," dedicated to a single current use, with multiple simultaneous operations an exception rather than a rule. At their core, PCs are about traversing a multi-faceted environment.

I’m not going to sit down in front of my smartphone to type this letter, but it would be handy to review it. On my tablet, I'll write and review, but I’m not going to create a document with embedded charts, spreadsheets, and tables.

Trying to stretch Windows and Office over mobile devices is not giving users a choice, it is making a choice, a poor one. Perhaps there is a Redmond analog to "Detroit syndrome" (as you know, Detroit in the 70s was not an environment where foreign cars felt like a threat.) Just because you know lots of people willing to peer at the world through the same lenses Microsoft is currently using doesn't mean that there isn't growing tension between your way and the best way.

Once you acknowledge that PCs, tablets, and smartphones each need to have their own conversation with the user, Microsoft will be free to be as influential in our digital future as it has been in our digital past.

Warm regards,

Larry Zulch