While the world waits for that puff of white smoke and the announcement of a new Defender of the Windows faith, I wanted to take a few minutes of your time and explain how things really look from the trenches.
No, I'm not going to tell you how to run a bazillion-dollar company with 130,000 employees and a bewildering array of products. You have enough folks with green eyeshades running around already - no doubt with a nasty propensity to tell you, "Yes, sir!"
I just want to talk about customers, especially Windows customers. If you can keep us in the fold, we can help you out of this fine mess Microsoft seems to have gotten itself into.
1. Fix the branding
Microsoft's branding runs all over the map, and it's been abysmal for decades. Where else can you buy a version of Windows that doesn't run Windows programs?
Microsoft threw away the name "Hotmail" - one of the most recognised brands in the world. Instead, we got another Outlook: Outlook.com, which is completely different from Outlook, in all of its myriad versions, and different again from Outlook Express or Outlook Web Access. Then there's Windows Mail (two completely different versions) and Windows Live Mail (part of Windows Live Essentials - or is it just Windows Essentials?). That's just a tiny part of the branding inanity.
Please give us names that make sense, so we can make sense of what you are doing and how best to make use of your services. Once you've chosen a name, stick to it.
And at least give us an alternative to "Metro." You've been dancing around the "Modern UI," er, "New User Interface," uh, "Windows Store Apps"/"Microsoft Design Language" bafflegab for more than a year. Kill it, definitively, and move on.
Yes, even if you choose "Mod." Ugh.
2. Simplify, simplify, simplify
Quick, off the top of your head: How many different versions of Office 365 are available? If you include the stand-alone cloud servers - such as Exchange - what's your count up to?
Tell the truth. Have you ever tried to negotiate the Microsoft Volume Licensing website? I think it's fair to say that Microsoft licensing rivals the US Tax Code in complexity - and self-serving stupidity.
All right, if you have a post-graduate degree in Microsoft Licensology, answer me this: How many different email programs has Microsoft shipped recently? If you can answer that, tell me why?
Byzantine licensing requirements only drive customers away, and complicated product sets do nothing to increase your profits. KISS.
3. Earn our trust
Those Scroogled ads make the general public believe that Microsoft's better than Google at protecting privacy.
If you really believe that, let me introduce you to a new feature in Windows 8 called Smart Search. Smart Search allows Win8 users to search both their computers and Bing for terms typed into the Windows search bar. Smart Search, enabled by default, also ensures that Microsoft tracks every single search conducted on a Windows 8 or 8.1 desktop.
You can't have it both ways. If you're going to beat your chest about protection of customers' privacy - a worthy goal - stop sneaking around with these little gotchas. Take a real stand, not an advertising posture.
4. Fix Windows
Windows 8 is broken. You know that. We all know that.
Steve Sinofsky got away with rejiggering the interface in Office 2007, blowing away menus and bringing in the Ribbon. Office went on to generate incalculable amounts of money, in spite of the screams. Fast-forward five years, and Sinofsky did the same with Windows, this time using tiles and touch. It didn't work. Microsoft stuck to its guns. It still didn't work.
Now it looks like Terry Myerson has come up with a plan to build three different versions of Windows. I think of them as Windows Mobile, Windows Personal, and Windows Pro. (There's that branding thing again.) Give him all the help he needs, please.
5. Lead, don't force
There are so many problems with Windows 8/8.1, it's hard to know where to begin. But of this much I'm sure: Ramming a massive, unpopular user interface change down customers' throats worked five years ago with Office. It won't work again. Customers these days - both consumer and enterprise - have too many options.
Instead of using a big stick, dangle digital carrots. If Microsoft had introduced WinRT-based "Metro" programs as a replacement for security-mangling Windows 7 Desktop Gadgets, you would've had a lot of people trying them without being forced. If developers could build Windows Phone apps that also lived in fixed-dimension boxes on the Windows desktop, the reaction to WinRT would've been completely different.
In the not-so-good old days, just about everybody put up with Windows' foibles. Times have changed.
6. Don't forget developers, developers, developers
Please! Find the person who decided to withhold the final Windows 8.1 bits from the developer community, and publicly flog them. Find the person who discontinued TechNet, and have them wield the whip.
Those are two of the most developer-antagonistic actions any major software company has instituted since I started programming, and writing about programming, many years ago.
Microsoft needs all the developers it can get. If that means you have to raise the bar for the unwashed coding masses to qualify for TechNet or release RTM code to people who need it to test, so be it. You need developers who are happy and developing, not moaning about switching to Apple or Google or Linux.
7. Don't cut XP loose
"I feel a great disturbance in the force, as if half a billion Windows users suddenly cried out in terror, and were told to go pound sand." - Obe-Wan Kenobi
Will Microsoft antagonise a third of its customers on April 8, 2014? There have been some momentous "cut off your nose to spite your face" moves in the tech industry, but dropping all patches for Windows XP would certainly take the cake.
Yeah, I know, you figure that XP has been around for more than a decade and deserves to die. But don't forget the Vista debacle. If Vista had been a decent operating system, people buying new computers would've flocked to it. Instead, Vista tanked, and anyone who had a lick of sense and bought a new computer in the Vista years ended up with XP, which was the only real choice until July 2009. You're killing an operating system that has less than five years of roadwear.
Here's how customers look at it: I paid money for Windows XP. Microsoft made billions of dollars, not just from XP, but from the products that followed. And now Microsoft says it can't afford to keep patching Windows? Right.
8. When you kill something, kill it
It's worse than a "Monty Python" sketch. Microsoft waffles a little bit about Silverlight. Developers come roaring back. Microsoft makes nice about its wonderful developer community. Then it urges Silverlight folks to try something new. Then it slowly just strangles the product - no announcement, no pathway to a better future, no help.
Hell, I'm still receiving Windows Update notices trying to install Silverlight. Don't get me started about ActiveX.
I don't know how many times that's happened, but it always hurts developers (developers, developers) the worse. Microsoft can kick a few developers in the teeth occasionally, but wholesale lying turns entire communities against you.
9. Patch Monday
2013 was a banner year for botched Microsoft patches. A couple of years ago, bad patches came out the automatic update chute every other month or so. Last year, we saw them roll out and roll over angry, frustrated, unsuspecting users, in great massive waves.
There are many reasons for the bad patches. No testing regimen will catch all of the stinkers. At least Microsoft can take steps to lessen the chances of delivering a bad patch, by enlisting the help of the customer base at large.
Last September, I proposed introducing Patch Monday - the day before Black Tuesday - where the world in general had a chance to test patches before they were released out the automatic update chute. I still haven't heard back.
10. Don't release half-baked apps
When Windows 8 hit the stands, the core apps - Mail, Calendar, People, Music, Video, and on and on - were so bad that writers had a hard time writing about them without breaking into epithets. Or tears.
If you're going to toss out a touch-centric app, don't throw us a warmed-over mouse-centric app with a little extra space around the edges. How stupid do you think we are?
Microsoft's in the big leagues. Or at least it should be. Don't give us apps that look like they were thrown together over a long weekend. It's insulting and demeaning.
I'm looking at you, Office 2013.
11. Break up fiefdoms
We may be seeing some progress on this front, but it's taken a momentous reorg.
I'm convinced that the main organisational reason why Windows 8 turned out as bad as it was (er, is) has a lot to do with the isolation of Sinofsky's organisation. Of course, with rare exception, Sinofsky didn't work with anybody and alienated almost everybody. But the problem went deeper.
The fact that Windows Phone was treated as an afterthought by the Windows 8 team speaks volumes. The groups should've been working together from day one. Instead, it was politics as usual, with one person trying to build a fiefdom in a situation where cooperation could've been so much better for Microsoft's customers.
12. Open up and loosen up
For years, Microsoft had a very open technical core - the people doing product design worked hand-in-hand with people who were going to use the products. TechEd (and before that, the Developer Tools Conference) started with a real two-way, informal interaction between 'Softies and customers.
Times change. In the past few years, Microsoft began aping Apple and cut off nearly all of its informal interaction with the outside community. That may be great if you're developing three or four visionary products per decade, from scratch, no outside interference wanted. But it sucks if you're trying to make a popular product better.
C'mon, Microsoft, what are you afraid of? Competitors stealing your ideas? Pshaw.