Sinofsky is out, but don't expect big changes at Microsoft

Pundits and analysts will use the departure to cast aspersions on Windows 8 or predict a shift in Microsoft's Windows strategy. Here's why this is almost certainly wrong

Microsoft announced last night that Steven Sinofsky, the polarizing leader of the Windows division and chief architect behind Windows 8, has left the company after 23 years. The decision was apparently mutual, and his lieutenant Julie Larson-Green will take over Windows engineering for the time being, while Windows CFO Tami Reller will oversee the business side.

Pundits and analysts will try to use this news to cast aspersions on Windows 8 or predict a shift in Microsoft's Windows strategy. This is almost certainly wrong. Here's why:

[ InfoWorld's Galen Gruman explains the strategy Microsoft must pursue to recover from Windows 8. | Also from CITEworld: The puzzle of Windows RT -- Why did Microsoft kick off its tablet push with Surface RT, which runs a less-functional version of Windows 8? ]

  • It's way too early to call Windows 8 a flop. Windows 8 and its ARM-ready sibling Windows RT shipped on Oct. 25, less than three weeks ago. Microsoft and its OEM partners won't have a sense of how Windows 8 compares with previous Windows releases until well after Thanksgiving -- and probably several quarters beyond. Any speculation that this is about bad Windows sales is as wrong as the widely misreported story yesterday about disappointing sales of the Surface RT tablet. (That story was based on an incomplete translation of CEO Steve Ballmer's remarks to a French newspaper.)
  • The new Windows leader was behind the new UI. It's also tempting to see Sinofsky's departure as a repudiation of the new Windows 8 UI, which offers very little benefit on nontouchscreen devices. The only problem with that theory is that new Windows boss Julie Larson-Green was the leader of Windows User Experience -- she and her team were more directly responsible for the Windows 8 UI than anybody. Moreover, Larson-Green was one of Sinofsky's closest confidantes and one of the first top execs that Sinofsky brought with him from the Office team when he took over the Windows group.
  • The competitive landscape hasn't changed. The reason Microsoft built the new UI was to give Windows a fighting chance in the emerging tablet market, particularly to stop the invasion of iPads into the enterprise. The iPad isn't going away. Microsoft still needs an answer. That answer is still Windows 8, Windows RT, and the Surface tablet.

Like Scott Forstall at Apple, Sinofsky was a polarizing figure. He kept Office relevant and growing throughout the 2000s with a series of incremental but mostly well-received releases, and he saved Windows after the Vista debacle by releasing Windows 7. But his software development methods were adopted by the rest of the company, which alienated a lot of Microsofties who wanted to keep doing things their way. He also made a lot of personal enemies, as I discovered when researching a story on him earlier this year.

But even if Sinofsky had been universally loved, his choices were limited. He already had the second-biggest job at Microsoft. Ballmer has said he won't step down until his youngest child is in college, which will be 2017 or so. So Sinofsky could either put his ambition on hold and wait around for the top spot or move on to greener pastures. Many other top Microsoft leaders have made the same decision over the last five years, including former CTO Ray Ozzie, Server & Tools chief Bob Muglia, and Business Division leader Jeff Raikes.

In his departure memo, Sinofsky said that he had "decided to leave the company to seek new opportunities" and he looks forward to "focusing my energy and creativity along similar lines." That sounds like a man with a new job waiting.

By the way, here's the memo in full. Note the last line: "Sent from Surface RT" -- never accuse the man of not eating his own dog food.

From: Steven Sinofsky

Sent: Monday, November 12, 2012 5:42 PM

To: Microsoft - All Employees

Subject: RE: Windows Leadership Changes

With the general availability of Windows 8/RT and Surface, I have decided it is time for me to take a step back from my responsibilities at Microsoft. I've always advocated using the break between product cycles as an opportunity to reflect and to look ahead, and that applies to me too.

After more than 23 years working on a wide range of Microsoft products, I have decided to leave the company to seek new opportunities that build on these experiences. My passion for building products is as strong as ever and I look forward focusing my energy and creativity along similar lines.

The Windows team, in partnerships across all of Microsoft and our industry, just completed products and services introducing a new era of Windows computing. It is an incredible experience to be part of a generational change in a unique product like Windows, one accomplished with an undeniable elegance. Building on Windows, Surface excels in design and utility for a new era of PCs. With the Store, Internet Explorer, Outlook.com, SkyDrive and more, each of which lead the way, this experience is connected to amazing cloud services.

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