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

Steven Sinofsky at the unveiling of the Windows 8 consumer preview earlier this year. Credit:IDGNS Seattle

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:

  • It's way too early to call Windows 8 a flop. Windows 8 and its ARM-ready sibling Windows RT shipped on October 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 non touch-screen 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, and 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 that 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 dogfood....

From: Steven Sinofsky Sent: Monday, November 12, 2012 5:42 PMTo: Microsoft - All EmployeesSubject: 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.

It is inspiring to think of these efforts making their way into the hands of Microsoft’s next billion customers. We can reflect on this project as a remarkable achievement for each of us and for the team.  Our work is not done, such is the world of technology, and so much more is in store for customers.

It is impossible to count the blessings I have received over my years at Microsoft. I am humbled by the professionalism and generosity of everyone I have had the good fortune to work with at this awesome company. I am beyond grateful.

I have always promised myself when the right time came for me to change course, I would be brief, unlike one of my infamous short blog posts, and strive to be less memorable than the products and teams with which I have been proudly and humbly associated.   The brevity of this announcement is simply a feature.

Some might notice a bit of chatter speculating about this decision or timing.  I can assure you that none could be true as this was 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. 

As I’ve always believed in making space for new leaders as quickly as possible, this announcement is effective immediately and I will assist however needed with the transition. 

I am super excited for what the future holds for the team and Microsoft.

With my deepest appreciation,

Steven Sinofsky

Sent from Surface RT

And, for the record, here's Ballmer's email announcing the move:

From: Steve BallmerSent: ‎November‎ ‎12‎, ‎2012 ‎5‎:‎27‎ ‎PMTo: Microsoft - All EmployeesSubject: Windows Leadership Changes

Over the past few months we have delivered the foundation for a new era for Microsoft. From Office to Bing to Windows Phone and Windows Azure, to Xbox and of course Windows and Surface and everything in between, we’ve unleashed a huge wave of devices and services that people and businesses love. I simply couldn’t be more proud of the effort you have all put in to get us here and to set the foundation for our future. At the Windows launch in New York, at the Windows Phone event in San Francisco, and again at the Build event on Redmond campus, I was struck that while externally many people look at these events as the finish line, they really represent the starting line of a new era.

As we enter this new era, and with the successful launch of Windows 8 and Surface behind us, Steven Sinofsky has decided to leave the company. Steven joined Microsoft in 1989 as a software development engineer and has contributed to the company in many ways from his work as a technical advisor to Bill Gates, to leading the evolution of the Microsoft Office business, to his direction and successful leadership of Windows and Windows Live as well as Surface. I am grateful for the work that Steven has delivered in his time at our company.

Effective immediately, Julie Larson-Green will lead Windows engineering. She will be responsible for all product development for Windows and Windows Live, in addition to Surface. Julie has been a stalwart leader of building compelling “experiences” from her time on Internet Explorer, through the evolution of Office and most recently to the re-imagination of Windows. Her unique product and innovation perspective and proven ability to effectively collaborate and drive a cross company agenda will serve us well as she takes on this new leadership role. All of the current Windows engineering teams will report into Julie, and Julie will report to me.

Tami Reller will lead business and marketing strategy for Windows including Surface and partner devices. She will provide broad stewardship to our PC marketing efforts while managing the line business functions for Windows. Her work on Windows since 2007 has been exemplary and her strong talents in working with internal groups and partners will also serve us well. Tami also will report to me. 

We are facing a time of great opportunity. What we have accomplished over the past few years is nothing short of amazing, and I know we have more amazing in us. I am excited about our people, I am energized by our ability to change and grow, and I look forward to the success which lies ahead. Thank you for all you do, and please join me in congratulating our new leadership and celebrating all that we have accomplished so far.

Steve

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