Will Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky take the fall for Windows 8's shortcomings?

Windows chief Steven Sinofsky's unexpected departure from Microsoft has sparked speculation that he's being let go because of a poor reception for Windows 8. If Windows 8 fails, will Sinofsky become the scapegoat?

As President of Windows and Windows Live, Sinofsky was the public face of Windows. He helped Microsoft get over the debacle of Windows Vista, spearheaded the successful development of Windows 7, and then oversaw Windows 8. Before then, he had a variety of positions at Microsoft, including senior vice president for Office. He is also generally credited with helping convince Microsoft to shift its focus towards the Internet in 1994 when he visited his alma mater Cornell, saw how the Internet was being used by students, there, wrote a memo to Bill Gates starting, "Cornell is wired!" and then followed that up with lengthy memos about the Internet's importance.

His resignation, coming so soon after the release of Windows 8 certainly raises speculation that it was related to the launch of the operating system. Gartner analyst Michael Silver told Computerworld that Microsoft's silence about the sales of Windows 8 and the Surface tablet, "could be an indication that they did not meet expectations."

Computerworld also notes that "Al Gillen, an IDC analyst, said Ballmer and the board may be second-guessing some bold bets Microsoft made with Windows 8, such as its radically-redesigned user interface."

The New York Times reports that Sinofsky has not been in the good graces of Microsoft in the past year. Nick Wingfield of the Times writes:

"In an internal review of his job performance last year, Mr. Sinofsky was faulted for failing to make sure that Microsoft lived up to a 2009 agreement with European regulators to offer users an easy way to install competitive Web browsers in Windows, according to a filing with securities regulators.

"Mr. Sinofsky was also faulted for a 3 percent decline in the revenue of Microsoft's Windows business, long one of its most profitable divisions and the foundation for its strength in the personal computing market. As a result, Mr. Sinofsky received 60 percent of the bonus he was eligible to receive last year."

If Sinofsky is being blamed for the decline in Windows sales, though, he's being scapegoated. In a world in which smartphones and tablets are increasingly becoming the primary ways that people use computers and access the Internet, the decline of Windows is inevitable. Windows revenue would have declined no matter who was in charge of the Windows division.

As for the risky bet of designing Windows 8 more for tablets than PCs, that's not totally his fault, althouh as Windows chief, he certainly should take a big  share of blame. But Microsoft CEO Ballmer and others were also behind the overhaul. A look at one of the people who will take over part of his role shows that Microsoft is clearly behind the makeover. Julie Larson-Green will oversee all engineering related to Windows. Computerworld reports that she

"...was instrumental in the development of the Metro UI in Windows Phone and now Windows 8, as well as the ribbon-oriented overhaul of Office."

If Microsoft was unhappy with the split personality of Windows 8, it wouldn't ask someone who helped design the tablet personality to take over engineering responsibility for Windows.

More likely Sinofsky had to leave because he's been well-known as someone intensely protective of turf, and did not work well with other divisions inside Microsoft. Because of that, he's been a polarizing figure.

As I've said frequently, Windows is Microsoft's past, not its future. Microsoft's success won't be built on Windows, but on an entire ecosystem of products and services. Building that ecosystem requires cooperation among divisions, not turf wars. Sinofsky's personality didn't inspire cooperation. So that's likely the reason he left or was forced to leave. But he shouldn't be scapegoated if Windows 8 doesn't succeed, because that wasn't his fault alone.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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