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Soon, We'll All Work as Baristas at Microsoft

The current Fortune magazine cover story, "All You Need Is Love, $50 Billion, and Killer Software Code-Named Longhorn", referred to earlier in this blog, has a good inside look at Microsoft's scenario-based product conceptualization process. Longhorn is the code name for the next major version of Windows:

At its simplest, Longhorn can be thought of as the next generation of Windows. But it is no mere upgrade. Bill and his teams are starting with a clean sheet of paper, rethinking what a computer operating system actually is, from the way documents and other data are stored and shared to the way people interact with the machine.

That's just the beginning. Because Gates' geeks are completely overhauling the operating system, they'll also have to redesign most of the company's other software products and services to take full advantage, including the MSN online service, its server applications, and especially Microsoft Office, the productivity suite that accounts for nearly a third of the company's sales and profits. If this enormous undertaking succeeds, it will make computers more personal than ever. Equipped with Longhorn, your PC will keep track of how you work, whom you talk to, what sites you look at, how you make documents and whom you share them with, which data on the network are yours--making all those things easier.

But the most interesting part is how Microsoft -- especially Gates himself -- is going about designing Longhorn:

What [Gates is] focused on now is translating his ideas into "scenarios" for developers. When mouthed by a Microsoftie, "scenario" means not merely a real-world setting in which a software feature or capability might come in handy, but how it will change the user's life. Every Microsoft product has its genesis in a list of transformative scenarios...

Gates' scenarios usually take the form of surprisingly simple questions that customers might have. Here's a sampling from our interviews:

  • Why are my document files stored one way, my contacts another way, and my e-mail and instant-messaging buddy list still another, and why aren't they related to my calendar or to one another and easy to search en masse?

  • Why can't my computer protect me from distractions by screening phone calls and e-mails, and why can't it track me down when I'm out of the office or forward things to me automatically?

  • Why can't our computers arrange conference calls and online meetings for us?

  • Why is it so hard for a soccer mom to set up a simple Website and e-mail group to keep people informed about who's driving and who's bringing treats?

  • Why can't I tap into all my stuff at home or at work from any device that's mine, and have it just be available because it knows I'm me?

  • Why can't I read digital versions of magazines on my portable computer that look the way they're supposed to look?
I'd say that if you're a Microsoft fan, this is all good news. If you're not, you may be in for trouble. While the Linux crowd is congratulating themselves for getting more drivers done and having office applications that look kind of like Word and Excel, Microsoft is rethinking the entire operating system and applications layer above it.

At this point, we're completely dependent on Apple for competitive innovation in operating system design at the user interaction level. Apple clearly has a vision of the future that revolves around becoming a hub for collecting, editing, and publishing media. It's a useful vision. Microsoft has a different vision based on universal access to one's own data and automating common tasks. Are both companies right, or three years from now, will one model clearly be superior? I don't know. What I do know is that one of the world's smarter people is thinking about this issue every day. As Fortune notes:

Three years ago Gates decided for the first time in his life that less could be more. He turned over the CEO title and all that organizational stuff to his old pal Steve Ballmer and dubbed himself Microsoft's chief software architect. Friends, relatives, and associates -- heck, even Bill himself -- all think it may be the smartest thing this famously smart guy has ever done. Which should send shivers down the spine of every competitor. Yes, Mr. McNealy, Mr. Ellison, Mr. Case, and Mr. Idei, we're talking to you.
Personally, I want both visions in my operating system. I want my operating system to be a great media hub and a great daily task automator. All other things being equal, for competition's sake, I'd rather see someone other than Microsoft deliver it -- even if that means I have to switch away from Windows and pay for the privilege. But if I can only get it from Microsoft, I will. Yes, Mr. Jobs, I'm talking to you.

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