Microsoft Removed Chesterton’s Fence

On Saturday, I explained why The Smartphone Is Not Merging With the PC. Apple and Google are moving in almost opposite directions from one another. But Microsoft? Their personal computing design philosophy is taking them nowhere fast. And one of the reasons for this failure in design is Microsoft is guilty of removing Chesterton’s Fence.

Chesterton’s fence is the principle that you should never take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.

The paraphrased quotation, was ascribed to Gilbert Keith Chesterton by John F. Kennedy in a 1945 notebook. The correct quotation is from Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”

      In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it. ~


For a decade, Microsoft tried, and failed, to master the tablet form factor. In April 2010, Apple introduced the iPad. In less than six months, Apple had sold more tablets than Microsoft had sold in the previous ten years. How could this be?


Apple built a Chesterton’s fence between the desktop and the tablet. The desktop used a mouse to enter pixel specific input. The tablet used a finger to enter touch input. Each form of input was separate, one from the other.

Remember, the iPad — especially in comparison to the Windows’ tablets that had preceded it — was wildly successful. However, Microsoft treated that success with utter disdain. They gaily came upon Apple’s method of using separate inputs for separate form factors and said: “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” They did not “go away and think”, they simply took the fence down without knowing the reason why it was put up in the first place.

Bill Gates’ Interview

The truth is actually a little more ominous than this. Listen to what Bill Gates had to say in this 2007 AllThingsD interview conducted by Walt Mossberg:

      MOSSBERG: What’s your device in five years that you’ll rely on the most.

GATES: I don’t think you’ll have one device…

I think you’ll have a full-screen device that you can carry around and you’ll do dramatically more reading off of that – yeah, I believe in the tablet form factor…

…and then you’ll have the device that fits in your pocket…

…and then we’ll have the evolution of the portable machine. And the evolution of the phone will both be extremely high volume, complementary–that is, if you own one, you’re more likely to own the other.

Sounds a lot like the iPad and the iPhone, right? And it doesn’t sound at all like the 2-in-1 Frankenstein’s monster Microsoft is trying to foist upon its unsuspecting customers.


The truth is, Microsoft didn’t take down Chesterton’s fence because they didn’t know any better. They took it down DESPITE knowing better. They took it down because they had to — because Apple’s separation of desktop and tablet inputs conflicted with Microsoft’s Windows business model. And having now removed the fence, Microsoft is seeing why it was put there in the first place. And so, in closing, the principle of Chesterton’s fence remains:

Never take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

450 thoughts on “Microsoft Removed Chesterton’s Fence”

  1. In a certain regard, the Surface is the logical necessary evolution of the Windows Tablet. Compared to the slates Ballmer was trying to foist on the public, this is a much better solution. It may still not be good enough of a solution, but it is better. At least they are recognizing the importance of touch in the OS and UI as opposed to the old tablets and Windows ME/Mobile, or whatever the old OS was called.

    I know you think MS and hardware is a big mistake. I just don’t see what other choice they have. First none of their OEMs were showing any imagination for tablets, slates, or hybrids. It seems obvious to me, like the Zune, if they want a satisfactory hardware solution (in their eyes) they need to do it themselves (I attribute this to the gravity of the mean that commoditization of hardware creates. No one can afford to innovate).

    And neither Apple nor Google/Android cares about whatever software or services solutions MS may have for mobile devices. So if MS is going to have material offerings for the mobile space, they will need to have a hardware outlet to at least showcase them and maybe even build awareness around them. I know a number of Windows users who think the Surface finally addresses all the short comings they felt with the iPad. Right or wrong, they are happy Surface owners now.

    Even if they only reach and maintain a 5% market share of the mobile space, as we’ve witnessed with Apple on the PC side, for as significant a company as MS this may be all they need to maintain significance until the next big thing.

    Are they scrambling? Sure. This was as big or bigger a miss than the internet (and given the mobile devices’ reliance on the internet, the miss is understandable. This kind of interaction beyond their ecosystem is hard for them to fathom). Do they need to achieve the same success with their OS and hardware in mobile as they did with Explorer? Probably not and realistically not going to happen anyway. But it may be enough to keep them in the game, even if it seems more like Brazil vs Netherlands rather than Germany vs Argentina.


    1. 1) Microsoft was stranded on the desktop. They had no tablet.

      2) Rather than create a separate tablet OS, they took down Chesterton’s fence and created two operating systems that ran (poorly) together under one name. They did not do this because the user would be better off with a hybrid. They did it because they wanted to extend their existing Windows franchise down into tablets.

      3) Windows 8 has failed about as much as any OS with such a large, built-in user base could have failed.

      4) Microsoft is not using the Surface to prop up Windows 8 — to make it viable. This is exactly backwards. Windows 8 is supposed to be making Microsoft money, not being subsidized by other branches of Microsoft.

      5) The idea that Microsoft can make money from hardware is ludicrous. a) They have little experience; b) They’ve proven that they’re not good at it; c) It killed there licensing mode; d) They’re going head to head with Apple in tablets and Samsung in phones. It’s like asking a land-locked country to build a navy while simultaneously fighting a war at sea. It’s not going to happen.

      Microsoft needs to stop spending resources on hardware, milk Windows and Office for all their worth and start focusing on back-end services where they are really, really good and where their (business) customers really, really appreciate the good work they do.

      Geez. I should have just made this into an article instead of a comment!

      1. I agree with everything you say here. Those are the obstacles and shortcomings they face as a company. I just don’t see that they have a choice. And from the offerings of their OEMs, they certainly won’t do any worse than their OEMs and at least they have more direct control of the hardware, for better or worse.

        Well, they had tablets before the iPad. They were just abysmal. Yeah, I don’t see them making money on hardware, either.


        1. For a thought experiment, let’s go back in time a few years. Windows 7 was released in 2009 to strong reviews. It seemed to cure almost all of the evils that had plagued Vista for the previous few years. Microsoft was selling tens of millions of Windows 7 licenses to power users, and the dreaded XP had gained a new lease on life because of the sudden popularity of netbooks. Microsoft had just weathered the storm of the 2008 market crash, and the future looked safe. However, iPhone was starting to prove very popular with users (despite its price point), and Android was iterating very quickly as a fast follower. Mobile and BYOD were an obvious threat to Microsoft’s Windows/Office hegemony, but the genie wasn’t out of the bottle just yet. iPad didn’t yet exist, and it was eventually launched to laughter (“just a big iPod touch”).

          Keep in mind that at this time, the Xbox is slowly but surely taking over a market after 10 years of struggle have led to success (and Kinect is really cool). Azure is growing handsomely, beginning to really compete with Amazon. Outlook/Exchange is the unquestioned leader in secure email. Somehow, against all odds, the Bing/Yahoo experiment is not bleeding share. In short, all aspects of Microsoft’s business empire are humming along. There are obvious cracks in the Windows/Office monopolies, but the company looks ok.

          Now it’s late 2010, and iPad isn’t exactly the dud Microsoft had hoped for.They are shocked to learn that people actually like the thing. Netbook sales quickly plummet. The tide is turning, and the company needs to act. Microsoft needs to read the tea leaves, make a major strategic decision, and put the full resources of the world’s best software company behind whatever decision is made.

          There was, in retrospect, ample data to suggest that iOS and Android were going to creep further up the productivity ladder. It was obvious to all that processors and sensors were going to make devices that run these nascent OSes much more capable, even if the software didn’t improve rapidly. It was also obvious that both Apple and Google were all in on mobile, and that they were going to move the needle as fast as possible with new features. It was also obvious that developers and users were putting their full imagination into totally new use cases for mobile computing. GPS alone meant phones could do a lot that computers couldn’t.

          So Microsoft had a choice – the company could either:

          Option 1) Throw everything they had at trying to lock users into Windows. Create a Windows “Highlander” (One OS to rule them all) and compel happy Windows 7 users to upgrade.


          Option 2) Accept the loss of one of the company’s two monopolies, and focus on enhancing the value of all other Microsoft products to replace eventual lost licensing revenue.

          In the words of the knight from the Indiana Jones movie, they chose poorly. Ballmer and Co. overestimated the value of Windows to the typical consumer buyer. They underestimated the importance of consistency to the typical enterprise buyer. Windows 8 abandoned all that had made Windows 7 a great OS. It was unfamiliar, inconsistent, illogical, and unnecessary to most potential buyers. In short, it was too much, too soon. For desktop users, it didn’t feel like Windows. For mobile users, it didn’t feel like a mobile solution.

          In a strange way, the whole Windows 8 / Surface strategy forced the company to choose the Option 2. The mediocrity of these products accelerated the inevitable decline of Windows. Perhaps the decision to first pursue Option 1 was the easier path, in that Microsoft didn’t have to rationalize abandoning the “burning platform” the way Nokia did. Ballmer didn’t ever have to publish a note to employees and investors signaling an obvious failure of strategy. MSFT shares have held firm as Windows Everywhere has burned. Fortunately, Nadella seems capable of observing the obvious, and is pushing the company aggressively toward Option 2.

          But imagine if Microsoft had come up with the third way that Apple is introducing with Continuity. Imagine if Windows 8 had not been Frankenstein’s Monster, but instead focused on bringing productivity across all form factors with nifty features like Handoff. What if it looked and acted mostly like the Windows 7 that business users loved, and the company had built a distinct mobile OS for tablets and phones that took all of the advantages of touch input and mobile sensors, but allowed power users to easily push productivity to whichever device is most convenient at any given time. A 2010 Microsoft with real vision and execution skills would have been a very scary competitor by 2014.

          1. OK, let me rephrase to clarify what I mean. _They_ don’t see that they have a choice. I kind of agree (but definitely not in their execution) with them in that if they want to have any chance of being significant with whatever the next big thing should be, especially if it is in the consumer computing space, to totally relinquish the mobile space removes them effectively completely from the consumer as a consideration. I don’t think XBox does not translate to the computing (desktop or mobile) space, so I don’t think they can rely on that brand for anything but gaming. Otherwise, I do think their only chance at growth is in the consumer space. There is no place left for them to grow in the enterprise space.

            Again, I am not saying which way is better for them, just trying to analyze from the perspective of MS. This really is a fight for significance and mind share, not necessarily just profit and market share. As Will asked in the other article, will it be worth it? Only time will tell. I don’t think they believe giving up is an option.


          2. I’m not saying that they should totally abandon all hope with consumers. But at the same time, they aren’t necessarily safe with businesses. I actually like the direction that Nadella has been trying to communicate over the last couple of weeks.

            The initial point of my rambling comment (before I really got wound up) was to suggest that Microsoft could have done something really good in the mobile space without punishing their OEMs by producing first-party hardware. Nadella can’t unring the bells of the Nokia acquisition and Surface production; what’s done is done. I don’t think Microsoft is in any danger of fading away, but the mobile strategy needs a major reboot. Going forward, the company still needs the right products and the right marketing to educate the market on Microsoft’s value.

            It will be interesting to see how the company communicates “productivity” as its new mantra. Hopefully, they get away from businessmen dancing in formal suits with their Surface tablets. Hopefully, they stop using phrases like “real work” to slam the competition. Far better would be a campaign which highlights real-life advantages of Microsoft’s platform for everyday users.

          3. “I’m not saying that they should totally abandon all hope with consumers.”

            While I agree, I do think _they_ think that they would be abandoning the consumer computing space if they abandoned the mobile space. I do think that is a very real risk. Not a prediction, but a real possibility. It’s one thing if people wonder where MS is with phones and tablets and MS is still there to be found. It is something else for people to wonder and find nothing. Out of sight, out of mind.

            “Microsoft could have done something really good in the mobile space without punishing their OEMs by producing first-party hardware”

            This is, I think, where we part ways. I think history is littered with decades of evidence that MS’s OEMs have no imagination. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Google/Android shifted from BB to iPhone clone and that Samsung initially did likewise (regardless of where you think they are now). Apple is where imagination thrives. If MS is going to stand any chance of staying relevant in mobile, they had to take hardware into their own hands.

            Sadly for Nokia it seems all MS really needs is the infrastructure, not the employees.

            All this from me is not trying to analyze the efficacy of their decisions, past or present. Nor an assessment or judgement of where they are. I am trying to understand their thinking on their decisions. I.e., If i were them making the decisions I see them making now, why would I be making those decisions?


          4. OK, just joshing with the “ditto” comment. Obviously a fantastic comment by the inestimable Joe Winfield. Well done, Joe. Really well done.

          5. “A 2010 Microsoft with real vision and execution skills would have been a very scary competitor by 2014.”

            That’s like saying “I’d be rocking out at the party if I weren’t behind bars for a DUI.”

          6. “There was, in retrospect, ample data to suggest that iOS and Android were going to creep further up the productivity ladder. It was obvious to all that processors and sensors were going to make devices that run these nascent OSes much more capable, even if the software didn’t improve rapidly. It was also obvious that both Apple and Google were all in on mobile, and that they were going to move the needle as fast as possible with new features.”

            I disagree with this. I think it was only obvious to a few and then only if you discounted history or at least looked at Apple’s new efforts from a different lens. Apple has attempted (corporate style) productivity inroads before with limited success at best… ever. And I think there is little to fear (so far) from Google/Android moves in the same space. If Android is making gains, there must not be much to write about them because, well, no one is.

            And Apple and Google have been “all in” on efforts before that could threaten MS with zero success. There was no reason to think this was going to be different. And I think Google/Android’s success would have been marginal without Apple changing the landscape and making pretty much the entire smartphone landscape irrelevant. Maybe they would have disrupted BB to some degree, but no more than Samsung had by that point. Even Apple did not see how much they were about to change things. Jobs was looking at only 1% cellphone market share for success in the beginning.

            What MS succeeded at, much to their chagrin, is complacency. One of Gates’ best attributes during MS rise and reign, IMO, was his paranoia. Even if he fully believed there was no chance for a competitor to succeed, he at least hedged his bets in some way. For some reason, that was out the window during this new mobile era. The rest is history. Now they can only react, not respond.


        2. Joe Winfield says it better and in more detail but to distill it down to its essence, what choice did Microsoft have? They had the choice to change their business model. They decided not to do that. Even now, they still have time to change their business to something where they have a chance of being successful but I doubt they will take it.

      2. I also agree with everything you have said here. However, you could still make this in to an article as I am sure there is more details along with some great quotes you like to use to support your points. The fun thing about Tech.pinions comments is that some of them could be articles on their own as they are quite good.

    2. Post Script: I recognize that mine is the minority opinion. However, I feel strongly about it and I have not yet seen any evidence that would persuade me to alter my admittedly off-beat view on the matter.

      1. Post Script: It does not matter if you think you are in the minority of opinions. When you are right you need to stick with your opinions as it shows that you can see the future for what it really will be versus what others want it to be.

  2. Again, an amazingly astute critique, John. Microsoft is willing to make changes to anything except their basic business model. That they are locked into.

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