Analysts divine traces of Windows 8 weakness, ego clash in Sinofsky exit

Disagree about future course for Windows and company, but 'damage control' is likely

Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky helped introduce the Microsoft Surface tablet on Oct. 25. Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft's top Windows executive, abruptly left the company Monday, a move that some analysts saw as an indictment of Windows 8. But other experts believe more was at play and that Microsoft will stick to the strategic trail Sinofsky blazed.

The mixed reaction from long-time Microsoft watchers, some of them former company employees, reflected the "Kremlinologist" tactics necessary to peer into a major company like Microsoft, especially one where Sinofsky's penchant for secrecy had taken hold.

Microsoft announced Sinofsky's exit late Monday. According to the company, yesterday was his last day, as his departure was effective immediately. Microsoft promoted Julie Larson-Green, a Sinofsky lieutenant and Window's chief designer, to head all Windows software and hardware engineering. Meanwhile, CFO Tami Reller, who also is the firm's head of marketing, will manage the business side of Windows.

Although Microsoft did not say why Sinofsky left, in a memo obtained by CITEworld -- a sister publication of Computerworld -- Sinofsky said it was his decision. "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," Sinofsky wrote.

Some analysts weren't buying that.

"There is undoubtedly either a major culture or personality clash going on internally at Microsoft, or something personally going on," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy in an email.

Others noted Sinofsky's quick exit as a reason to doubt his story. "When an executive plans to leave, there is usually a lot more than what this [Microsoft press] release states," said Al Gillen of IDC in an email. "It sure looks like this was a decision that was made for him."

The idea that Sinofsky was forced out because of his leadership style -- which has been characterized as abrasive and non-collaborative -- was a thread that ran through many analysts' thoughts today.

"He had a reputation of being difficult to work with," said Michael Silver of Gartner, choosing his words carefully in an interview late Monday. But if Windows 8 -- Sinofsky's last project -- had been wildly successful, that would have been overlooked. "I'm not saying that Windows 8 is the reason for this ouster. But I am saying that the lack of huge success may have made his personality and way of doing things less tolerable. They needed someone who could bring parts of Microsoft together and reduce the sniping."

Silver wasn't the only one who drew a line between Windows 8 and Sinofsky's egress.

"This departure appears to be a repudiation of the strategy and direction of Windows 8 design, partner strategy, and Microsoft hardware," said Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Steven Sinofsky, the brains behind Microsofts latest operating system is leaving the company.

Last month, Gillett said that 2013 was "going to be ugly" for Microsoft as the company tries to stabilize its plummeting share of operating systems for what he called "personal devices," which includes not only PCs but also smartphones and tablets.

Windows 8 and its tablet-centric spin-off Windows RT, as well as Microsoft's first-ever tablet, the Surface RT, launched Oct. 26. But while sales figures are scarce, months of negative analyst, blogger and reviewer analysis have had an effect. The consensus: Windows 8 and Windows RT, although necessary if Microsoft is to compete with Apple, Google and Amazon in tablets and smartphones, will be hard sells because of their new "Windows 8 Store," nee "Metro," user interface (UI).

Few analysts went as far as Gillett in tying Sinofsky's departure to Windows 8, if only because the jury is still out on the new OS.

"I think there is some relationship to Windows 8," said Gillen, "but precisely what that relationship is, is hard to say."

"It is too early to call Windows 8 either a success or a failure," said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based research firm that focuses solely on Microsoft.

But there is precedent at Microsoft for head-rolling. In 2006, Jim Allchin, a 17-year veteran who had been responsible for Windows Vista, the debacle that was years late and panned by almost everyone, announced his retirement the day the operating system shipped in late 2006. Other Vista hands, including the head of Windows product marketing and lead of the Windows Core group, were also shown the door.

Silver elaborated on his take of a link between Windows 8 and Sinofsky's exit by citing numerous opportunities that Microsoft has had to boast of any Windows 8 or Surface RT success. With a lack of such bragging, Silver concluded that the new operating system and hardware have not met the company's internal goals.

"On the number of Windows 8 upgrades, there was no explanation [of numbers]," said Silver in one example. "If they had had great success at upgrades, they would have said so. I have to think that the products were just not as successful as they had hoped."

"This comes as a real surprise," said Gillen, reflecting the unanimous opinion of all the analysts contacted by Computerworld. "However, reading [Microsoft's] press release indicates that Sinofsky did not make it through the biggest challenge of his career."

While it may not been the only reason, a majority of the analysts believed that Sinofsky got the ax, at least in part, because of the direction he took with Windows 8, Windows RT and Surface RT, and the perception that all were compromised products.

"Windows 8 reflects Sinofsky's style, which, according to some was alienating, secretive, and no-frills," observed Moorhead. "This is not Sinofsky leaving at the top ... that would have been seeing Windows 8 through tremendous sales of tablets."

Rob Helm, of Directions on Microsoft, was the loudest in disagreeing on those reasons for Sinofsky departing.

"Vista was different," Helm argued in an interview as he reacted to the idea that Windows 8 triggered Sinofsky's departure. "That was an ugly one. Here we didn't see any of that angst, or any of the delays."

From his chair, Helm saw the move as Sinofsky described it in his memo to Microsoft's employees. "If you wanted to be a CEO, or a manager of engineering at a large company, this was the time to leave, before they set out on Windows 9," said Helm. "It does seem, if that was the case, this was the perfect timing."

Analysts also crossed swords on how Sinofsky's absence will alter Microsoft's future, or even if it would. Some worried, others were sanguine.

"My main concern with his departure is that he understood mobile and the importance that mobile has in the new ecosystem," said Carolina Milanesi of Gartner in an email. "The new people appointed [to replace him] come from the traditional Windows background. I hope this change will not translate into a back-to-basics approach, just when we were starting to see some movement on Windows phone and tablets playing a role in the overall Microsoft proposition."

But Helm didn't see a major change in the offing.

"Putting Larson-Green in charge implies a certain amount of continuity. She was with [Sinofsky] all along, and fundamentally his right-arm designer, his Jony Ive," said Helm, referring to Apple's head of design and his reputation as former CEO Steve Jobs' closest confidant. "She was absolutely critical to the redesign of Office 2007 and Windows. She was instrumental in making a mark of the new Microsoft style [displayed in Windows 8]."

Cherry backed him up. "If he really was a good manager, then he left a good team in place that can continue work in his absence," said Cherry.

But Silver countered. "The question is how safe or strategic is Windows 8 now?" he said. "At the least, they'll have to do some damage control. We've been saying all along that Window 9 would be sooner than later, two years from now rather than the usual three. I think it's more likely now that they smooth all the rough edges of Windows 8 and quickly push forward on Windows 9."

Gillett, of Forrester, echoed Silver. "I read this as a move to get new leaders in place and get started quickly on an update to the software design of Windows," he said.

Others saw a silver lining in Sinofsky's leave-taking, however it came about.

"Sinofsky was said to alienate [independent software vendors, independent hardware vendors], retail partners and customers with his Microsoft-first attitude," said Moorhead. "Partners wanted a bit more empathy and less Apple-like behavior, [so] many will be happy to see him leave."

Most had similar thoughts.

"Frankly, Sinofsky made the company more closed, and more likely to share direction only after that direction had been so heavily committed to that there was no turning back," observed Gillen. "The [Windows] division seemed to be enamored with how Apple brought products to market -- meaning operate in relative silence until announce."

But even with the clues read, the entrails studied and the tea leaves turned over, analysts still worked in the dark, as one acknowledged.

"Maybe Sinofsky was trying to do the right thing, but the wrong way," speculated Silver. "It didn't reduce the sniping within Microsoft by giving him more responsibility. That's not necessarily a great corporate culture. So will it go back to more sniping or less now that he's gone?

"And can they still grab the excitement that Apple has in the market? Windows 8 clearly didn't do it. But they have to figure out where the problems are," Silver said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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