Microsoft Just Lost Its Steve Jobs

Why Steven Sinofsky’s departure is terrible news for the tech company.

Steven Sinofsky
Steven Sinofsky

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

Imagine if FDR had fired Dwight Eisenhower just as the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, explaining that the general was too mean. And then Eisenhower had put out a statement denying that he’d been fired—instead insisting that he’d enjoyed his time as a general, and the beginning of a huge battle seemed like a good time to step back and do something else with his life.

That’s sort of what happened at Microsoft yesterday. In a move nobody predicted, the company announced that Steven Sinofsky, the executive who’d led the development of Windows 8 and the Surface tablet, was leaving the company. These two products represented Microsoft’s D-Day, its bold attempt to beat back Apple’s post-PC invasion. The battle was just getting started. The new Windows and Surface were released just a few weeks ago, and while they’re far from perfect—indeed the Surface, in my opinion, isn’t very good—I thought they represented a courageous new direction for Microsoft. Suddenly, the tech giant was taking necessary risks. It’s betting on innovative software design, it’s proven itself willing to force changes on its base of customers and developers, and it doesn’t care about offending its hardware partners.

Sinofsky deserves all the credit (or blame) for Microsoft’s new path. He led the development of Windows 8 single-mindedly and almost single-handedly, cutting out input from other divisions as well as from his underlings. His abrasive attitude won him few friends at the company (see Jay Greene’s great CNET profile of Sinofsky), but even his critics conceded that he got stuff done. Before Sinofsky took over, Microsoft’s Windows division had been tattered by the disastrous Vista release. Sinofsky didn’t just right the ship. He also understood that Microsoft was falling behind its competitors, and he knew just how to modernize Windows for an era in which people want computers that function like appliances. Because he succeeded in launching Windows and the Surface on time (though not exactly to rave reviews), he’d been widely considered to be the guy to replace Steve Ballmer as Microsoft’s next CEO.

But now Sinofsky is suddenly gone. And while I bet his departure will make Microsoft a nicer place to work, I’m not sure that harmony is what the company needs now. Under Ballmer, Microsoft has long operated like it doesn’t care about the future, missing the rise of the iPod, touchscreen smartphones, and modern tablets. Now, thanks to Sinofsky, it’s finally got a chance to break with that sorry past. So he was a jerk. So what? With Sinofsky’s departure, Microsoft is rudderless at a time of intense competition. He was the firm’s most thoughtful executive, certainly more perceptive about technology than Ballmer. Sinofsky had a firm vision about where the PC industry should go. Ballmer does not. As Michael Pusateri quipped on Twitter, “The wrong Steve is leaving Microsoft.”

At the moment, Microsoft and Sinofsky are pretending that his sudden departure doesn’t signal any larger trouble for the firm. In an email to colleagues, Sinofsky said he needed a break after the launch of Windows 8: “I can assure you that … this was a personal and private choice that in no way reflects any speculation or theories one might read—about me, opportunity, the company or its leadership,” he wrote. A tide of anonymous Microsofties have laughed off that denial. According to Kara Swisher at All Things D, Ballmer had had enough with Sinofsky’s hard-charging ways. So, too, had Bill Gates, who blessed Ballmer’s decision to replace Sinofsky with two longtime executives, Julie Larson-Green and Tami Reller. The CEO promised that they would help “drive alignment” between the Windows division and other groups at Microsoft. In other words, they’d play better with others than Sinofsky did.

As pretty much every tech pundit has noted, there’s a clear parallel between Sinofsky’s departure and Apple’s recent firing of Scott Forstall, who used to direct its iOS division. Both Forstall and Sinofsky were polarizing figures, the sort of people you’d cast as reality-show villains. They weren’t there to make friends. In explaining the departures, both Ballmer and Apple’s Tim Cook said they wanted different divisions to work together more closely. Apple used the word “collaboration.” Microsoft used the word “integrated.”

Some Apple watchers have already pointed out how strange that sounds for a company whose longtime leader never saw the need to work with others. “Close your eyes and imagine a meeting with Steve Jobs. Imagine how it proceeds and how decisions are made,” software engineer Michael Lopp wrote in a blog post last week. “Does the word collaboration ever enter your mind? Not mine. I’m just sitting there on pins and needles waiting for the guy to explode and rip us to shreds because we phoned it in on a seemingly unimportant icon.”

Lopp didn’t dismiss the value of collaboration (and neither do I), but instead argued that volatility isn’t always a bad thing. Jobs wasn’t just an asshole because it was how he was wired. He was hard to work with because he had a keen sense of the right way and wrong way to make products. And that was also how he wanted other executives to behave—he didn’t want them to collaborate, but to argue. (Here’s how, according to Walter Isaacson, Jobs finally relented on his lieutenants’ arguments to make the iPod available for Windows: “Screw it. I’m sick of listening to you assholes. Go do whatever the hell you want.”)

A move toward working nicely with others is worse for Microsoft than for Apple, for the simple reason that Apple has already benefited from Steve Jobs. It wouldn’t be a great thing for investors if Apple coasts on Jobs’ culture for the next five years, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, either. Apple would still sell a lot of tablets and phones.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is long past living off of Bill Gates’ fumes. It can’t afford to coast. It needed a visionary leader who understands the future of computing. Sinofsky could have been that guy, Microsoft’s Steve Jobs. If only he weren’t so darn mean.