Emerging Tech

Microsoft’s Sinofsky Episode: Reading Between the Lines

The plot thickened in the Microsoft saga involving Steven Sinofsky as the former head of Windows took to the blogosphere to set the record straight on rumors he attempted to make a power grab. Among the questions now being debated is whether Sinofsky initiated discussions about merging the Windows and Windows Phone divisions.

Steven Sinofsky

Steven Sinofsky addresses the crowd at Microsoft’s New York Windows 8 launch event in October.

Former Microsoft engineer Hal Berenson, who blogs at Hal’s (Im) Perfect Vision, speculated that Sinofsky had tried to bring both Windows Phone and the developer division under his control. Sinofsky followed up with comments that this was not the case.

Other reports suggest that Sinofsky was ousted because he was considered difficult to work with — but is there more to it?

“What likely came about is that Sinofsky went to Bill Gates, and going over Steve Ballmer’s head — or any CEO’s head — to the chairman of the board is generally career limiting — or eliminating,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“Ballmer wants a team of cooperating segment managers; he doesn’t want a few empire builders focused on replacing him,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld.

“Instead of cooperating more, which was the directive, it appears Sinofsky’s direction was to take control of the units he needed to cooperate with,” he added. “This turned him from an asset, in Ballmer’s view, to a very big liability. Steve Ballmer is very good at eliminating big liabilities.”

Historical Revisionism?

How this will play out remains to be seen. So far, Windows 8 and the Surface tablet have been received positively, and much of the credit will likely go to Sinofsky. Over time, he may get the credit for it, but in the short term it is less clear.

Still, Windows CEO Steve Ballmer, who has been making the rounds this week, has only gone on record to say positive things about Sinofsky. It would be easy enough to throw Sinofsky under the bus, but perhaps Ballmer doesn’t see that as necessary, especially given that Windows 8 hasn’t hit any snags.

“What we’re seeing here is the public sausage-making of historical revisionism,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. “Since virtually nothing has been made public about Sinofsky’s reasons for leaving, both side are constructing the narrative they’d prefer to be believed. There’s nothing nefarious about this — it’s just a sign that everyone involved realizes that being perceived to be a bad guy will negatively impact their ability to work effectively in current or future positions.”

View Out the Window

Sinofsky is largely credited with taking Microsoft in a new direction with Windows 8, which has received a largely positive response, but there are still issues that could leave his fingerprints on the touchscreen.

For example, he is responsible for the lack of a Start button, something that may seem like a minor point — but to those who want it, his approach seemed very much a “my way or the highway” line of thinking. That sort of approach isn’t exactly one that shows solid leadership.

“Many customers are happy with the changes of Windows 8,” industry analyst Jeff Kagan told TechNewsWorld. “However, many customers are not. Customers have their own life to lead. They don’t want to have to learn a new operating system.”

While Sinofsky may have thought the changes in Windows would be enough to lure new customers, there is also the issue that some don’t like change for change’s sake — and see any significant “update” as exactly that.

“With a change this dramatic,” said Kagan, “Microsoft should have given customers the choice: brand new technology like Windows 8, or letting the customer stick with existing technology they already know — like Windows 7 or even XP. Microsoft has always forced the customer to update. That didn’t hurt them in the past, because there were no options. Today, however, there are increasing options in operating systems, software — and even Web-based options.”

Playing It Cool

Given the way Sinofsky’s exit has played out — and with many facts still not entirely clear at this point — Ballmer may have taken the best course of action by exercising restraint. He still has the top seat at Microsoft, but he likely needs to show that he is in control of the company — and his emotions — through events such as these.

“Since Ballmer remains in the driver’s seat in Redmond, he can afford to be magnanimous,” King told TechNewsWorld. “Since [Sinofsky’s] departure appears less scripted than one might have expected, particularly given his position in the company, it isn’t surprising that Sinofsky is trying to carefully manage how events proceeded and how he is perceived.”

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but Ballmer needs to show that it isn’t a burden.

“Does Ballmer have to play it cool? Yes he does,” added Kagan. “He is the leader. It is his job not to throw gasoline on the fire. Microsoft is a very important company because they [are on] countless computers of business and consumers worldwide.”

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