What Sinofsky's departure says about Microsoft - and the future of Windows
14th Nov 2012 | 14:53
The reasons behind the surprise departure
It certainly isn't about the success or otherwise of Windows 8. Steve Ballmer's comments about Surface have been widely misinterpreted; he called Microsoft's distribution plans modest, not initial sales and UK retailers have reported Windows 8 laptop sales 25% higher than anticipated.
No version of Windows can immediately reverse the flat or declining sales of PCs in mature and saturated markets but what Windows 8 and RT do is open up to Microsoft the tablet market that has so far been dominated by Apple.
It's not about disappointment in his achievements.
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In the past Ballmer has relied on Sinofsky, first to investigate internally what led to customers and partners suing Microsoft over Windows Vista Basic (after the Windows team reneged on commitments to OEMs not to support less capable Intel graphics chipsets) and then to rescue the Windows division from the morass of Longhorn.
Longhorn OS that was abandoned after years of development and almost entirely rewritten for release as Windows Vista.
Sinofsky brought to Windows what he delivered in Office; an organization that shipped high quality releases on time.
Equally, this isn't the result of a failed attempt to become Microsoft CEO. For one thing, Ballmer (and more importantly the Microsoft board that actually appoints the CEO) isn't looking for a successor; in 2008 he said he planned to stay at Microsoft for another decade.
Nor is it some belated revenge for ousting potential CEO aspirants like former Xbox head Robbie Bach.
While Sinofsky may have helped kill off Bach's plans for a non-Windows tablet, Bill Gates' desire to see Courier do email was just as lethal.
Creating another platform at Microsoft just as Xbox and Windows Phone finally became part of a single Microsoft platform alongside Windows and Windows Server was a terrible idea and Bach's departure was far more about dismantling the internal fiefdoms that had become rampant at Microsoft at the end of Bill Gates' tenure.
Timing "not significant"
If anything, it seems more like the departure of former Windows Server and Tools president Bob Muglia (who left in large part because he didn't think Microsoft's cloud products were mature enough to be "all in" on).
Sinofsky himself frames it as "a personal and private choice that in no way reflects any speculation or theories one might read - about me, opportunity, the company or its leadership" and says that the timing isn't significant.
That would make this week simply the first opportunity to make the announcement without distracting from the Windows 8 and Surface launch or the Build conference (where he was noticeably absent, unlike the developer conference right after Windows 7 shipped).
It's not impossible that after 23 years at Microsoft and two marathon rounds of Windows development cycles, he simply wanted a change. Or, to indulge in the "chatter speculating about this decision" that Sinofsky predicted his departure would cause, it might be about internal disagreements about ways to run the various Microsoft divisions.
Although Bill Gates is still heavily involved in Microsoft and in regular email contact with many senior leaders at Microsoft, Ballmer seems to be putting more of his own stamp on the corporation.
He has clear ideas about the way divisions should be organised and run and if Sinofsky disagreed about that (as other Microsoft division chiefs have in the past) or wanted to work in a different way, it would mean a parting of the ways.
Few significant products of any kind are delivered without a driving force at the top. Steven Sinofsky has been an undeniably polarizing figure who many have criticised as uncompromising and there have been persistent questions about his relationships with other teams and executives at Microsoft.
Some journalists found him hard to work with; others found him helpful and approachable, although also a very private person.
Not wanting to be the story
Problematically, he never cooperated with people wanting to write profiles on him, saying simply that he wasn't the story; the book he co-wrote was about managing large teams rather than about his own views.
That meant that while anyone who has been unhappy enough at Microsoft to leave has been happy to criticize his management style, people who enjoyed working with and respected him - and his desire not to be the story - wouldn't speak about that on the record. That leaves most profiles with a negative and unbalanced view of a man with an intensely dry sense of humour it seems to have been easy to miss.
Perhaps if he had spoken with a British accent rather than an American one, it would have been obvious when he was being ironic; as when he first announced plans for Windows 7 and fixing the problems of Vista in a throwaway line about the UAC (User Access Control) prompt being "so famous I thought for a few moments it would surpass the fame of Clippy - and I'm now associated with both of those personally."
His considered way of speaking and superb poker face meant he could tell us in 2008 that there was "nothing I would say right now" about Windows on ARM without giving anything away.
He certainly didn't think of himself as a dictator. In the same interview he told us "the very last thing great product development needs is one person saying how it should be" and that dictating what features should be in Windows "wouldn't be how I would work; that's like 180-degrees wrong". The tributes from former colleagues on his Facebook page don't paint a picture of a leader universally disliked by his team.
He was involved in initiatives across Microsoft from recruiting and mentoring interns to championing the XD disability support group at Microsoft (and took a particular interest in accessibility features in Office and Windows. As usual, the reality is more complex than the headlines.
What does all this mean for Windows?
In the short term, far less than you think.
Don't expect the Start menu to return, or the Metro name, or the Zune brand, or a new commitment to Silverlight; don't expect the Start screen or Windows Store apps to go away. Some of those are changes that had to be made, others reflect the priorities of other divisions like Xbox.
And most significantly, while the business side of Windows goes to Tami Reller, who is a natural choice in the short term given she already has significant business and marketing responsibilities within Microsoft,
Windows development has been handed over to Julie Larson-Green, who was behind Office's ribbon redesign - and the Windows 8 UI (she gave the first ever demonstration of Windows 8 at D9).
Sinofsky brought Larson-Green to the Windows division along with others of his Office team, like Jensen Harris who was responsible for the design of the Office ribbon and much of the user experience of Windows 8.
Chris Anderson, one of the architects of the WinRT runtime said recently at Build that something that developers viewed as a limitation in WinRT was there "because that's the way Jensen told us it was supposed to be".
And certainly, handling the development of Windows over to someone's long-time lieutenant doesn't signal dissatisfaction with what they achieved.
In fact, just as Windows 8 was under development six months before Windows 8 shipped, work on Windows 9 has been going on, probably for months already. If, as we expect, Windows is moving to faster releases, especially for Windows RT, a substantial amount of work will already have been done.
The Windows team has already delivered what would normally have been a large part of a service pack before RTM.
In the long run, switching Windows over to a more sustained development model may be as much an achievement to remember Steven Sinofsky for as rescuing Windows from the Vista and Longhorn debacles and delivering the unquestionably successful Windows 7 and Windows 8, on time and at high quality.