TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Making sense of Sinofsky's exit

The shock departure of Windows Division president Steve Sinofsky leaves Microsoft with a tainted legacy of Windows 8 and Windows RT. Rising above this won't be easy.

One would be forgiven for thinking that Steve Sinofsky’s departure from Microsoft this week was Steve Ballmer fulfilling his promise to make Microsoft more like Apple. Apple cleared out key executives Scott Forstall and John Browett earlier this month and Microsoft followed suit with Sinofsky. In the case of Forstall and Sinofsky, both Apple and Microsoft are left with their unwanted legacies.

In Apple’s case however, the situation is recoverable. Apple Maps will get better and skeuomorphism will be banished from all future design. In Microsoft’s case however, it is left with the unwanted children Windows 8 and Windows RT, and getting rid of them or changing them into something more acceptable to the corporate world won’t be that easy.

Although it is too early to really say, sales of Windows 8 and Microsoft’s tablet Surface have so far not been stellar. More importantly, everyone is now painfully aware that Windows 8 is not going to be the thing that revives the PC market any more than BlackBerry 10 will save RIM. Microsoft’s fortunes, forever tied to that of the PC, will inevitably follow the downward trend.

Another theory of Sinofsky’s departure has been the possible threat he posed to Steve Ballmer as a successor in the role of CEO. You would have to wonder why after so many years that this would have become a particular issue now. Tarring Sinofsky very clearly with any potential failure of Windows 8 could be seen as a defensive move on the part of Ballmer. If Windows 8 sales continue to disappoint, more of the blame can be shifted to Sinofsky.

Sinofsky's replacements won't last long

The likelihood of Windows 8 sales disappointing the market is high, as it will really struggle to gain any traction in the corporate world. What makes this worse for Microsoft is that this may be the last major Windows release. It is rumoured that Ballmer is planning a reorganisation of Microsoft’s teams to move them to an annual release cycle of integrated products. The future organisational changes probably explain why Ballmer made the decision to put relative unknowns Julie Larson-Green and Tammi Reller in charge of Windows. Basically, they won’t be there for long.

Having execs being asked to leave a company is always going to be bad news. It speaks of internal strife that takes time to recover from. It also manifests the disquiet when things are not going well for a company. In Microsoft’s case the departure of Sinofsky was not taken well, with a nearly three per cent drop in their share price. Ballmer is not a popular CEO and the removal of a potential replacement has obviously disappointed the market.

An uncertain monopoly

From a corporate customer perspective, the future is now completely uncertain. Companies will have to decide how long they can stay on Windows 7 before being forced to make a decision on where to go next. In the past, you could rely on Microsoft to get every other version of Windows right, making an upgrade every five to six years achievable.

That future path is now far from certain. If Microsoft sticks with Windows 8 and goes to smaller, incremental annual updates, it will make the options for companies very limited. Some analysts are predicting that Apple may be able to start taking a larger portion of the PC market. However, this relies on Apple themselves not doing anything foolish which, if recent performance is any guide, is far from guaranteed. Also, Apple still struggles when it comes to enterprise level deployment.

If anything is going to save Ballmer and Microsoft, it will be the fact that in the corporate world Microsoft still commands a monopoly position. Although this may erode over time with the move to mobile, as with the IBM mainframe Microsoft will hang on for some time to come.

David Glance is a director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia.

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