About a year ago at the 2011 Build conference, just weeks before Steve Jobs's passing, Steve Sinofsky owned the stage as he took the wraps off Windows 8 and highlighted Microsoft's plans to create a single interface spanning phones, tablets and PCs that ran ARM and x86 processors. More than a few Net pundits proclaimed Sinofsky the Second Coming of Jobs.
So much for that prediction.
As it turns out, they may have something in common. The fact that Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live divisions, is departing immediately is a significant indicator that he was fired. If he were retiring, there would have been a timeframe for a hand-off to his successor.
And as it turns out, we had another big red flag signaling that something was up: Sinofsky was not at Build 2012. Day one featured keynotes by CEO Steve Ballmer, corporate vice president and chief evangelist for developer and platform evangelism Steve Guggenheimer, and director of program management for Windows Phone Kevin Gallo. Day two keynotes were lead by Satya Nadella, president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Business, and a batch of server-oriented senior executives.
I've got queries out on Windows 8 sales, because that might have been the last straw for him. As it is, Windows 8 suffered a huge embarrassment when it had to change the name of the Metro UI late in development because the trademark was not available. It made Microsoft look very bad, and for that someone had to be held responsible.
While I don't know what Windows 8 and Surface sales have been like exactly, at least one problem has come out: Surface covers, with that magnetic keyboard, are reportedly very fragile and tear easily. After the Xbox Red Ring of Death, Microsoft does not want another recall on its hands.
Then there's the good chance that Sinofsky simply x-ed himself out of a job. Yes, he got results. He shipped Office and Windows on time, as expected, but he was reported to be more abrasive than Brillo and disagreed with more people than MSG. Unless you are the CEO, you can't get away with that. That was Scott Forstall's undoing at Apple and it could very well be the reason for Sinofsky's undoing here. Getting results regardless of cost are a sort of Pyrrhic victory. You can't afford to keep winning like that and you have no hope of being an effective leader if people don't want to be in the same room as you.
Microsoft is going for a holistic approach, where multiple groups all work together to coordinate their product releases. Sinofsky was notoriously secretive, like Apple in some ways, and wanted to keep the Windows team closed off from the rest of the company. That's just not going to work.
For me, the money quote in Steve Ballmer's letter to the staff is when he describes Sinofsky's successor, Julie Larson-Green: "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."
Translation: she plays well with others.
Sinofsky's departure letter from Microsoft says he is looking for new challenges. After 24 years at Microsoft, doing everything from serving as a technical advisor to Bill Gates to delivering on Office to whipping Windows 7 into shape, he's earned the right to put his feet up and go fishing (or hiking or whatever). He really doesn't have much left to prove.
Well, other than the ability to get along with people.