Steven Sinofsky leaves Microsoft – but why?

Microsoft has announced that Windows chief Steven Sinofsky is leaving the company:

Microsoft Corp. today announced that Windows and Windows Live President Steven Sinofsky will be leaving the company and that Julie Larson-Green will be promoted to lead all Windows software and hardware engineering. Tami Reller retains her roles as chief financial officer and chief marketing officer and will assume responsibility for the business of Windows. Both executives will report directly to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

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Here are some quick thoughts.

One line of thought is that Windows 8 and Surface RT are failing because users do not like the dramatic changes, with the new tiled personality and disappeared Start menu, and therefore its architect is departing.

I do not believe this for several reasons. One is that the promoted Julie Larson-Green is a key creator and proponent of the new design (call it Metro if you like). She worked with Sinofsky on the Office Ribbon way back, a project that has some parallels with Windows 8: take a critically important product and revamp its user interface in ways that customers are not requesting or expecting.

My further guess is that Microsoft was braced for some level of storm on the release of Windows 8. There was plenty of warning that the new tablet-friendly platform would be a hard sell to longstanding Windows users.

The time to judge the success of Windows 8 is not today, but in two or three years time, when we can observe how the platform is faring in the new world of mobile and cloud.

It is my opinion that the remaking of Windows is more brilliant than blunder. Without “reimagining” it was doomed to slow decline. Microsoft now has a tablet operating system, and one that is in the hands of millions thanks to its integration with desktop Windows. The storm will die down and there is at least some chance that the outcome will be an app platform that will keep the company in the tablet game.

That said, it seems to me that Microsoft has had problems in execution. Windows 8 is fairly solid, but there are signs of haste in the building blocks of Metro, as you discover if you write an application, while Surface RT is not the fast, easy to use appliance that it should be. Key apps like Mail and Xbox Music are short of features and too hard to use, while Windows-isms such as update errors have not been expunged as they should. Such issues can be fixed, but the moment to get this right is at launch, not six months or a year later.

You might also ask: why is Microsoft allowing its brand new store to fill with rubbish apps, seemingly with the knowledge and encouragement of employees at the company?

Were these execution problems Sinofsky’s fault then? Again I doubt that. My perception is that Microsoft is a dysfunctional company to some degree, but one in which there are islands of immense talent and teams which deliver. It is huge and bureaucratic though, and getting everyone motivated and energised to deliver top quality is likely impossible without radical reform. Bureaucracy tends to result in employees who work by the letter not from the heart, which results in mediocrity, and there is evidence of that everywhere.

In this context, the fact that Sinofsky delivered twice, once with Office 2007 and again with Windows 7, with judgment on Windows 8 not yet possible, shows his ability.

If failure is not the reason then, why?

Well, another reason for staff to leave suddenly is that there was some sort of internal conflict. Sinofsky achieved by taking a firm line and sticking to it, which made him enemies. I do not have any inside information; but two moves to reflect on would be the move of ASP.NET and Silverlight guy Scott Guthrie to Windows Azure, and deep Windows internals guy Mark Russinovich also to Azure.

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