Former Windows chief: Mobile will quickly become the new normal

Steven Sinofsky. Credit: Dell via Wikimedia

Former Windows and Office chief Steven Sinofsky thinks the confluence of mobile and the cloud is driving a major change in how everybody works, turning traditional organizations upside down and redefining the word "normal."

"The positive term is 'paradigm shift,'" said Sinofsky, who was speaking on a panel with Box engineering chief (and Google Docs inventor) Sam Schillace at the Boxworks conference this afternoon. "One day everybody's mailing around PowerPoint presentations and carrying a five-pound laptop....The next day it's 'I couldn't read them on my phone so they don't exist.' That's what's driving this huge change. Companies are much more in tune with the resources outside them. They have the ability to work with vendors as though they were employees in the same organization."

Sinofsky was a 23-year Microsoft veteran when he left the company last October. He led the Windows team through its last two releases, and prior to that led development on Office for about a decade. He joined Box as an advisor last month, and this was his first public appearance since taking on that role.

He noted that disruption doesn't always happen in one smooth motion. He talked about his first job, which was unpacking PCs and distributing them at an aerospace company. Some employees, he said, refused to accept the PCs because their job was filling in forms in triplicate, and the PCs and dot-matrix printers of the day couldn't fill in those forms. "For a short time, people had all forms reprinted on continuous feed papers, then wrote complicated software for the PCs to fill in the forms." At one point, somebody finally realized they could just create the form from scratch on the PC, type into it, then print the form and data at the same time. "It was like some giant revolution."

The move to cloud-based data stores and mobile devices is going to have the same kind of blinding flashes of obviousness. 

Letting everybody contribute to success

Earlier today, Box introduced Box Notes, a cloud-based word processing program that emphasizes real-time editing and collaboration. Sinofsky said that Notes has a chance of solving the problem that groupware products such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint have been trying and failing to solve for more than 20 years -- truly useful collaboration among employees. That's because Box Notes offers a single version of the document in a cloud store, and encourages everybody to work on it at once. There's no copying and emailing multiple versions of a file around.

This isn't just a cosmetic change. It highlights an important change in organizational thinking.

"For really the second half of the 20th century, management convinced themselves they knew more and were smarter than employees. Tools grew up to promote that. You could parcel out the creation of slides, or a memo, it'll be bubbled around to the organization and get completed," Sinofsky said. "But the only one who sees the completed version is the boss. Email attachments let this thing fly around, but it was not certain who was going to see it or why. Now with tools that make it easy and encourage people to have information in one place, it now solves the problem that 20 years of groupware has tried to solve."

He also talked about the importance of building tools that users actually want to spend time with.

"People will actually contribute positively to your organization if the tools are easy to use and they want to use them. They won't contribute if that's not the case," he said. "You can't contain every mobile phone, every app, every tool. So you have to have an infrastructure people want to use and are going to use."

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