The fact is that a bunch of design hipsters had free reign with no supervision.
"Unlike other companies that maybe have one person at the top, we don't have a [design] czar at Microsoft," says Julie Larson-Green, VP of program management for Windows. Of Metro, she adds, "It's not like Steve [Ballmer] decreed it." One former longtime Microsoft manager put it bluntly: "I don't think Steve could even spell the word design." And unlike Steve Jobs, who was infamous for meddling in every detail of Apple's product launches, Ballmer didn't go to any of the rehearsals at Milk Studios for the unveiling of the Surface; his part was played by a stand-in till he arrived on the day.
So Microsoft embraced design not because Ballmer suddenly discovered beauty or started futzing around with typefaces, but because Apple showed that good design can be obscenely profitable. "We have recognized the value of [design]," says P.J. Hough, head of Microsoft's Office division, "and we have decided to make it a much higher priority." A former senior-level Microsoft source who advised Ballmer puts it a touch more tartly: "They're placing an emphasis on design because the dollars sit there. They're looking at Apple's market cap."
Still, the Windows 8 designers can't quite pinpoint the origins of the company's new religion, not least because they have worked without attention from top management. According to insiders, Ballmer offered no direction to the Windows 8 team on the features of the new user interface. Windows president Steven Sinofsky kept him abreast of the team's progress, but Ballmer met with Larson-Green only twice during the development process, and he never got together with the team to green-light the design.