Curious Rat

On Sinofsky's Departure from Microsoft

As of today, former Windows head Steven Sinofsky is no longer an employee at Microsoft. His departure was confirmed on AllThingsD:

Sources have said the move came amid growing tension between Sinofsky and other top executives. Sinofsky, though seen as highly talented, was viewed at the top levels as not the kind of team player that the company was looking for. The move is likened by some to the recent ouster at Apple of iOS head Scott Forstall.

Yes, it would be likened to Forstall’s ouster because they were both high-level executives at computer companies who left within weeks of each other. But let’s get one thing clear:

Forstall is still at Apple for another year. Sinofsky is gone today.

There was no announcement two weeks ago about Sinofsky’s leaving, nor was there any indication that something like this might happen. It’s easy to say, “Well, the Surface is bombing in sales and Windows 8 is getting panned by blogs, so of course they would’ve gotten rid of him,” but why does it automatically default to Ballmer giving Sinofsky the boot?

What if Sinofsky, who had been with Microsoft since 1989, had finally had enough? Ballmer’s an imposing, temperamental figure known to throw chairs in anger. He’s also a disciple of former CEO Bill Gates, who put Ballmer in charge when he stepped down in 2000. According to a Vanity Fair article from this August 2012, the feeling at Microsoft centered around a philosophy perpetuated by Gates himself: If it ain’t Windows, it ain’t worth it:

Indeed, executives said, Microsoft failed repeatedly to jump on emerging technologies because of the company’s fealty to Windows and Office. “Windows was the god—everything had to work with Windows,” said Stone. “Ideas about mobile computing with a user experience that was cleaner than with a P.C. were deemed unimportant by a few powerful people in that division, and they managed to kill the effort.”

This prejudice permeated the company, leaving it unable to move quickly when faced with challenges from new competitors. “Every little thing you want to write has to build off of Windows or other existing products,” one software engineer said. “It can be very confusing, because a lot of the time the problems you’re trying to solve aren’t the ones that you have with your product, but because you have to go through the mental exercise of how this framework works. It just slows you down.”

Windows, Windows, Windows - an old system and an old brand. Combined with crippling bureaucracy, Ballmer’s unfathomable denial, and his inability to cope with reality, it’s no wonder Sinofsky left. Who’d want to work for the man who shuttered the labs that helped birth Windows Phone 7, the Xbox, and the ill-fated Courier project?

Just look at the products Sinofsky executed during his tenure at the company (from today’s press release):

“I am grateful for the many years of work that Steven has contributed to the company,” Ballmer said. “The products and services we have delivered to the market in the past few months mark the launch of a new era at Microsoft. We’ve built an incredible foundation with new releases of Microsoft Office, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Microsoft Surface, Windows Server 2012 and ‘Halo 4,’ and great integration of services such as Bing, Skype and Xbox across all our products.”

Sinofsky was “the Windows guy” and helped rein in the troops after the debacle that was Vista. It’s because of his leadership that Microsoft didn’t completely collapse upon itself after Vista’s release and I’m willing to bet he was also the main proponent for Microsoft creating its own hardware with the Surface. Windows 8 was supposed to be a new, innovative operating system that deserved a new, innovative device to truly show it off.

At the Surface announcement, Sinofsky was beaming with pride at what he and his team had accomplished (even though no one actually got to use one). This was something groundbreaking for Microsoft, which had always been primarily a software company first and a video game console company second.

But how were Sinofsky and the Surface supposed to gain any ground with Ballmer greasing the wheels with third party OEMs behind the scenes?

That fact was very much on display several weeks ago at the Windows 8 launch event, as Ballmer raced toward Yuanqing and glided into a perfectly firm handshake with the Lenovo chief executive. Grasping his hand and earnestly talking him up, Ballmer looked in his element, a veteran salesman with a beaming smile, laughing and clapping during the several-minute conversation, placing his hand on Yuanqing’s shoulder before embracing his hand once again and departing.

The Windows 8 launch event should’ve been all about Windows 8 on the Surface and how fantastic it was because now Microsoft had its own hardware in the game without all the bloatware and stickers the “other guys” cram onto their machines. But Microsoft needed those licenses. It needed the support of third parties to keep it in the black and to get hundreds of millions of Windows-powered devices into peoples’ homes. Ballmer wouldn’t take the risk and stand by the Surface. 1

Finally, we return to today’s announcemet and this choice sentence:

To continue this success it is imperative that we continue to drive alignment across all Microsoft teams, and have more integrated and rapid development cycles for our offerings.”

Windows 8 is a compromise. It’s a peek at the future with its hand on the door to the past and it wouldn’t surprise me if Sinofsky wanted to move things forward, to push the envelope and leave much of the legacy cruft behind, but was held back by Ballmer. On Sinofsky’s Wikipedia page (and as we all know, Wikipedia is always right), there’s a short blurb about his work on Windows 7:

Sinofsky’s philosophy on Windows 7 was to not make any promises about the product or even discuss anything about the product until Microsoft was sure that it felt like a quality product. This was a radical departure from Microsoft’s typical way of handling in-development versions of Windows, which was to publicly share all plans and details about it early in the development cycle. Sinofsky also refrained from labeling versions of Windows “major” or “minor”, and instead just called them releases.

He was focused. He was Hell-bent on shipping a quality product on time and with limited leaks to the public. Ballmer, if you recall, loved getting onstage and showing off unifinished products - remember the HP Slate that didn’t do anything it was supposed to do when it finally came out? It was a mess and it represented Old Microsoft at its worst.

Now the company is at a place where it feels it can coast on what it currently has to offer: Windows 8, the Surface, Windows Phone 8, and the Xbox. It has a new-looking OS (superficially), a truly innovative mobile phone OS (lacking basic features found in competing software), a new tablet (which requires an “optional” keyboard cover with trackpad to operate it properly), and a best-selling video game console (that’s seven years old).

Every one of Microsoft’s current products is held back by an anchor to a bygone era and perfectly illustrate how the company is perceived by the media and the public. Microsoft is a dinosaur with lasers mounted on its head.

It doesn’t sound like Sinofsky was forced out the way Forstall might have been. I absolutely believe he and Ballmer butted heads, as I’m sure he did with other execs. They’re all alpha males and females - it comes with the territory. But it seems much more likely that he was unhappy with the direction Ballmer was taking the company, and more importantly, Windows.

Sinofsky is a forward thinker 2. Ballmer has always had Microsoft in reverse.

  1. And let’s be honest, what were these manufacturers going to put on their machines instead? Android? Linux? People want Windows. It was silly to think Microsoft was going to lose massive amounts of business from its partners because it suddenly had a new tablet/laptop in its stores. ↩

  2. I’m starting to think that [when Sinofsky said][13] “So to Microsoft, ‘no compromise’ means that it cannot simply start over with a clean slate…”, he meant, “So to **Ballmer**, ‘no compromise’ means that it cannot simply start over with a clean slate…” ↩