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Why is Steven Sinofsky really leaving Microsoft?

His legacy is brilliance, accomplishment, abrasiveness, opportunism.

By Tim Greene on Tue, 11/13/12 - 8:32am.

It’s hard to imagine why someone would walk away from one of the most powerful jobs within Microsoft just weeks after launching two products that its CEO says together rank among the top three events in the company’s storied history.

But that is just what Steven Sinofsky has done, stepping down as president of the Windows and Windows Live division where Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface tablets were spawned.

BACKGROUND: Steven Sinofsky out at Microsoft 

FAQ: Sinofsky's departure from Microsoft

"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," he says in a letter to Microsoft employees that was obtained by Paul Therrott’s SuperSite for Windows.

That sounds like the standard polite boilerplate accompanying the departure of executives who quit in a snit or are asked to leave and to go politely. Or perhaps he just wants to leave at the top of his game and do just what he says he’s doing – looking for another realm to conquer.

Along with his reputation for focused, high-energy devotion to developing high-quality products and delivering them on schedule, he is also known for alienating colleagues, pitting his divisions against others within Microsoft and perhaps being a bit too ambitious.

Two years ago, an internal turf battle with legendary Lotus Notes developer Ray Ozzie may have led to Ozzie’s abrupt departure from Microsoft, where he had been wooed as the software architect to replace Microsoft founder Bill Gates himself, according to an excellent profile of Sinofsky posted last month by CNET’s Jay Greene.

Both men headed teams working on cloud synchronization services, Ozzie’s called Live Mesh and Sinofsky’s called SkyDrive. Sinofsky won the battle; Ozzie left the company.

For his profile of Sinofsky Greene says he interviewed more than 15 executives who worked with Sinofsky either at Microsoft or at partner companies, and they paint a picture of someone who created a workplace so difficult that it scared off potential talent.

Sinofsky’s not without his lighter side. At the recent Microsoft Surface launch, he brought out a skateboard fashioned from a Surface tablet and rode it, balancing on his hands. In his departure letter, he poked fun at his long-winded writing style. "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," a reference no doubt to his notoriously long and thorough Building Windows 8 blog.