Nov. 13, 2012 at 3:58 PM ET
Microsoft has been revving all of its engines this holiday season in an attempt to prove it's as good (or better) than Apple and Google. Xbox gets "Halo 4," Windows Phone gets an update and impressive new hardware, Office gets a new version and Windows 8 makes its debut, marking the company's entrance into the tablet market. So why did the guy seen as most instrumental to the company's comeback just suddenly up and leave?
Though you may not know Steven Sinofsky's name, you've experienced his handiwork. After all, he is the man credited with salvaging Windows after the Vista debacle. Windows 7 wasn't flashy or radically innovative, though. It was a soundly engineered OS that just worked. The flash and radical innovation came with Windows 8, which Sinofsky unveiled last year and launched this October, along with the flagship Surface tablet. While Windows 8 has not been greeted with the ticker-tape-parade-level enthusiasm that came with Windows 7's launch, it does represent a new level of integration for a company famous for "silo" development of distinct products that don't really work together.
Take, for instance, the brightly colored tiles and side-scrolling interface of Windows 8. That look, once called "Metro" and now called "Modern," began on Windows Phone and migrated to Xbox last year. That interface was accompanied by crossover projects such as Xbox SmartGlass, a platform that lets tablets and phones control, communicate with, and send content to the Xbox console. While Microsoft's grand unification remains in its infancy — the cross-platform development tends to range from superficial to glitchy, and Microsoft Office is notably a holdout from the new look and feel — the signs have been pointing to a new shared direction for Microsoft's products.
But with Sinofsky's sudden adios, the new question is, did he push the company forward or hold it back? Either way, this is bad for consumers: If he pushed it forward, then product development will certainly slow down while the company gets a new chief whip-cracker. And if he was holding everybody back, then the company will have to rebuild around a new vision — and vision isn't in huge supply at Microsoft these days.
In other words, if Sinofsky's approach was the wrong way to go, then has Microsoft lost even more ground to Google and Apple than previously thought?
There is plenty of speculation as to why Sinofsky left. He has long been considered a successor to CEO Steve Ballmer, but he's also known to be somewhat prickly, and a hard person for fellow managers to get along with. Sinofsky is compared to the late Steve Jobs both because he could inspire his troops to get a good product out the door, but also because he was a power grabber and no fan of compromise. The impression GeekWire's Todd Bishop had after interactions with "Microsoft misfit" Sinofsky was that he seemed "focused intently on controlling the success of his own division, and not all that interested in playing along with the rest of the company."
Kara Swisher's story in AllThingsD Tuesday says that when push came to shove, Bill Gates himself backed Steve Ballmer, and green lighted the decision — deemed by the company as "mutual" — to show Sinofsky the door.
Ballmer himself said in a statement that the "new era at Microsoft" requires "that we continue to drive alignment across all Microsoft teams, and have more integrated and rapid development cycles for our offerings." If this is a veiled comment on the fact that Sinofsky was divisive, then why are the products he mentions, including Microsoft Office, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Microsoft Surface and Xbox, all products that Sinofsky either once managed or worked to integrate?
Windows 8 was a comeback play for a company that had totally missed the mobile revolution perpetuated by its blood competitors. Microsoft is behind five years on phones and two and a half years on tablets. Yet one main reason for the slow development is because Sinofsky used the company's dependence on Windows sales — and the fact that an increasing number of PC shoppers are instead choosing iPads — to justify grabbing tablet development from other divisions.
But Microsoft's decision to hold out and put full-blown Windows on a tablet has not been vindicated. The Surface RT tablet, though attractive and well engineered, is an oddity with sales that even Ballmer calls just "modest." Nobody knows what to make of the device that has both a phone interface and a computer interface — especially since the OS bounces you back and forth with little warning.
Before Sinofsky's ascension, others in Redmond had been dreaming up cool tablets. Any nerd worth his or her salt can tell you tales of the Courier tablet, a mysterious, unique-looking pen-based tablet with two screens. In September 2009 — before the world had seen the iPad for the first time — Courier was spotted in leaked Microsoft concept videos that were published, along with loads of screenshots and schematics, by the tech blog Gizmodo.
Courier was the brainchild of Xbox genius J. Allard, and was said to be a big part of the next wave of products from the Xbox-dominated Entertainment and Devices group. But before it could become a reality, Courier went poof, allegedly because it would take a bite out of highly profitable Windows sales. Both Allard and executive Robbie Bach left the company soon after, as Swisher notes.
Likewise, the Windows Phone group could have stretched that experience to a tablet fairly easily, because phones and tablets have similar chip architecture. This could have been a boost for (still miserable) Windows Phone sales, because it would have inspired developers looking for alternatives to iOS and Android. But the decision was made to shrink Windows to fit a tablet, rather than expand Windows Phone to do the same. Android and iOS both started as phone platforms that expanded.
The only precedent for Microsoft's ultimate decision was its own awful "Tablet Edition" that launched in 2001 and lingered in the nursing home of unsuccessful products for all too long.
History was hard on those first Microsoft tablets, and it may well be as cruel to the new ones, now that their father is out of the picture. Was it wise for Microsoft to "protect" Windows by sitting out the tablet race for two and a half years? Likewise, ditching classic Windows on the larger PCs to build interest in tablets may not prove to be a good idea either. Sinofsky may have been shrewd at consolidating power and motivating workers to produce results, but his ideas were not necessarily the best: Back in 2006, he brought the hate-it-or-love-it-but-mostly-hate-it "ribbon" interface to Microsoft Office, something I personally won't ever let him off the hook for.
No matter how we see this episode in Microsoft's timeline two decades from now, this shake-up suggests a lack of direction that will affect the company — and the consumers buying its products — for years to come. A few months ago, we saw Microsoft slowly driving along a bumpy comeback trail. After Sinofsky's departure, it looks like it's just stuck in the mud.