Biz Features

Why do small developers often make much better apps than Microsoft?

by . January 7th, 2015

What happens when engineers and designers don’t have a say in the final product? Look no further than MS Office.

Microsoft Office has been an ubiquitous presence in most of our lives for the past few decades. Even in places that mostly run OS X or Linux, it usually won’t take long before someone is forced to use at least some component of  any of the numerous versions of MS Office.


MS Office has tacked on a lot of features over the years, becoming notoriously bloated, and often bewildering for most average users to use efficiently.

You would think that with such a large development team – one that employs some of the best engineers the world has produced no less – that making killer apps would be a walk in the park. But smaller development teams and even individuals have over the years created applications far superior to their Microsoft equivalent.

What the heck is going on in here?

The problem doesn’t lie necessarily in that some developers are better than others, though that’s often true. But a lot of the time it all comes down to how specific projects are managed, and what kinds of results are needed.

Reddit user winduh asked a question in r/windowsphone “How can independent/unknown developers make better, decent, and far more superior applications than Microsoft? ”

User 0xdeadf001 sheds light on the subject by explaining something that’s been no secret for industry followers:

“5 year MS veteran, here.

The problems here are mostly structural, in the sense that the problems come from the structure of teams, rather than the quality of individual people. Most of the developers at MS are actually quite good; many are top-notch. So why is so much of the product shit? It’s because the goals are not set by the engineers. The final decisions are not made by engineers.

For a long, long time, the “standard” arrangement in MS has been the “triad”: Development, Test, and PM (Program Management). The thinking is that people in these three roles should focus on their strengths, and by their strengths combined, should make a great product.

But here’s the thing. It never, ever works that way. Historically, Windows NT was actually run by Dev. Office is (and always has been) run by PM. This is why you see some real technological advances in Windows, such hibernation, super-fast boot times, BitLocker, Hyper-V, … (I could go on for a very long time on the good engineering done in Windows), but at the same time Windows has no real specific focus. Windows is a platform, so maybe that’s OK — a great deal of the value of Windows is the huge app ecosystem.

But if you look at Office, it’s a feature mill. Office hasn’t created any new, interesting technology for well over a decade. Every release adds more eye candy, uses more memory, and is slower. That’s because Office is not run by engineers, it’s run by PMs.

Office has never, ever figured out how to integrate with the web. They’ve tried, over and over, but every technology that they have tried has been chosen and pushed by PMs, not by engineers or anyone else who understands how people actually want to use Office these days. So, seriously, you could put the absolute best engineers in the world in Office, and you would still get more of the same — more UI “features”, more bloat, more useless stuff.

For a long time this arrangement “worked”, in the sense that people kept buying Office. But now, the world has shifted to the web, and Office really is not relevant in the web. It’s relevant in IT, mainly because apps like Excel are still pretty solid at what they do. The core spreadsheet engine in Excel is a masterpiece of engineering, but Excel mostly hasn’t changed in the last 10 years. The Ribbon was just a UI change. Nearly everything else has been a UI change, not any kind of advance in the core technology. Office is still file-based, not web-based.

There have been numerous internal projects which attempted to branch out in new directions. I’ll never forget seeing a demo of “NetDocs”, more than 10 years ago, at a company meeting. Think Google Docs, long before Google was even a household word. An internal group had basically that working, but it was quickly killed. People here joke that the worst thing you can do is to demo a technology at a company-wide meeting, because it guarantees that someone else will get your project killed. It’s not really a joke, it’s just a grim reality.

Things reached their absolute worst under Sinofsky. That man nearly wrecked Windows forever. He wanted to be the next Steve Jobs, so he was an absolute tyrant, who ignored everyone’s criticism (everyone said Win8 was going to be disliked, but he ignored them). (Ignoring criticism is fine when you’re right, but Sinofsky was wrong!) Thankfully, Sinofsky’s reputation tanked when Win8 tanked. That man was so caustic that he prevented internal engineering groups from even talking to each other. For almost a year, the Windows Server team had trouble getting access to the Windows source code, because Sinofsky was so obsessed with secrecy for Win8. I’m not exaggerating, I was there, I saw this mess.

Now that Sinofsky is gone, things have improved dramatically, but the culture is still nowhere near as healthy as it was during the Windows NT / 2000 / XP days. Satya Nadella is definitely setting a good tone, even though his direction is mostly the same as Ballmer’s was. People see Nadella as an engineer first, which is a very good thing.”


For the full context and follow-up comments, find the original thread here:

For a FUN anecdote on Clippy:


  • Size means little without focus.
  • It’s not how big your guns are or how many you have – it’s where you put the bullet.
  • Trying to please everyone usually ends in disaster.
  • You can beat bigger competitors. In a more-or-less fair environment it happens all the time.
  • Features =/= benefits.
  • Internal culture always matters.


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.