Kara Swisher

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In the Sinofsky Departure, Bill Gates Sided With the Other Steve (Ballmer) at Microsoft

Sometimes — even in the most complex of organizations, which software behemoth Microsoft most certainly is — it does come down to a simple choice.

And in the case of the seemingly sudden departure of Windows head Steve Sinofsky yesterday, several high-level sources at the company said that it came down to former CEO and co-founder Bill Gates’s backing of current CEO Steve Ballmer in the controversial decision to part ways with the powerful exec.

The goal? To better allow various units to work together more closely going forward.

While Gates — who is now chairman of Microsoft’s board — has had a longtime and very close relationship with Sinofsky, he supported the move by Ballmer to promote more integration of Microsoft’s other divisions and also involve other top executives more significantly than ever before in the planning and development of the next version of Windows.

This more collegial cross-division effort was different from the closely held, command-and-control and even secretive method for which Sinofsky had been well-known throughout the company. In fact, numerous sources said, it was anathema to him.

“There was Steve’s way or no other way,” said one exec, in a common sentiment about Sinofsky’s iron-handed rule of the flagship Windows business. “Now, in the new world we’re competing in, it’s about creating strong areas of integration among all our products.”

In this regard, Sinofsky was not known as someone who played well with others. While considered highly effective and “deeply brilliant” by most for being able to lasso Microsoft’s most important unit, he also had a longstanding reputation for being very difficult to work with.

And that includes working with Ballmer, who sources said Sinofsky had clashed with, and who also had been wary of Sinofsky, especially since he had been one of the internal candidates mentioned as a possible CEO successor.

Sources at Microsoft did not waste a moment to point out that the situation was akin to the tension between ousted software exec Scott Forstall at Apple and its new CEO Tim Cook.

A favorite of the late CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs, who protected the prickly Forstall from criticism, his continued challenges after Cook took the reins at Apple ended with a similarly sudden departure.

Except in Sinofsky’s case it was not as sudden as it seemed. AllThingsD had gotten wind of preparation for his departure over the last several weeks, from a number of sources inside and outside Microsoft, even as Sinofsky readied the significant launches of both Windows 8 and Surface.

In fact, I had queried Microsoft about Sinofsky’s possible plans to leave over the weekend, but company spokesman Frank Shaw had declined to comment.

But even for those who are cheering the move internally, the departure of Sinofsky now leaves a decided leadership void in the upper ranks of the company.

Sinofsky demonstrated the ability to both tame the massive beast that is Windows and to push the operating system in new directions, all while hitting deadlines. Even with his challenging personality, those are significant feats.

Still, that accomplishment was often overshadowed by Sinofsky’s willingness to mix it up with other execs.

“He had no factions, except those who worked for him,” said one source. “He picked a lot of fights.”

That included tussles with former chief software architect Ray Ozzie — who left Microsoft in 2010, in part after battling against Sinofsky over how the cloud-based world was shaping up, and how Microsoft should respond.

Likewise, former Entertainment and Devices unit leaders Robbie Bach and J Allard also found themselves on the losing end of a corporate battle with Sinofsky, as Microsoft axed their planned Courier tablet and agreed to give tablet responsibilities to the Windows team. Both left the company in 2010.

Sinofsky also clashed with former Microsoft Business division head Stephen Elop, who left the company in 2010 to run Nokia, now an important partner in the smartphone business.

Having sided with Sinofsky in all those fights, though, Ballmer belatedly decided that he wasn’t the right choice to bring the company together in the future. Sources said Ballmer raised those concerns with Gates, who agreed.

Sinofsky’s departure is not without risk, because it’s not clear who at the company now has both the business and technical savvy to predict where the industry is going, and to point the company in that direction.

And it’s also uncertain if it is possible for Microsoft to now pull as a team at all, given the company’s longtime and decidedly pronounced proclivity for siloed fiefdoms like Sinofsky had built at Windows — an empire that will now, presumably, be disassembled for a new and more cohesive structure.

“The idea is for collaboration across boundaries that have been in place for too long,” said another source. “It’s easier said than done, of course.”

Of course, but sources said that among the key execs to look at in this regard are Online Services head Qi Lu and Servers & Tools President Satya Nadella.

Both have deep technological talents, as well as being well-liked at Microsoft.

More on what the Sinofsky departure means for them next.


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