Two years ago, when Microsoft debuted the Kinect sensor for Xbox 360, the company celebrated the launch on its website by replacing its standard corporate mug shots with Xbox Live avatars for all of its top executives — except for Windows president Steven Sinofsky, who was represented by a Windows logo instead.

It struck me as weird enough that I sent Sinofsky a lighthearted message about it: Where’s your avatar? He brushed me off with a friendly no comment.

Whatever the reason, for me it symbolized Sinofsky’s reputation inside Microsoft — focused intently on controlling the success of his own division, and not all that interested in playing along with the rest of the company.

That character trait seems to have been a big factor in Sinofsky’s departure from the company on Monday. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s quotes in the official news release are telling — talking about the “great integration of services such as Bing, Skype and Xbox across all our products” and saying “it is imperative that we continue to drive alignment across all Microsoft teams, and have more integrated and rapid development cycles for our offerings.”

In other words, Microsoft’s future will depend on the ability of its divisions to work together effectively. And Sinofsky is out.

Microsoft describes the decision as mutual, effective immediately.

I have to say I’m sorry to see him go. Say what you will about him, Sinofsky is the type of character who makes a company more interesting, at least from the outside. He deserves credit for turning around Microsoft’s flagship product, grabbing the wheel and getting the division back on track after the Windows Vista debacle. And with the development of Windows 8, he led a complete overhaul of the operating system for tablets and touch screens.

Sinofsky has dry sense of humor — even charming at times — wrapped in a prickly demeanor.

“Go learn something,” he said to a New York Times reporter, gently pushing him away after he asked a tough question at the Microsoft Surface unveiling. In an interview with CNet News in 2009, he greeted questions he didn’t want to answer with a silent, stone-faced stare.

At the same time, as I learned over the years, he has a great habit of dashing off private emails to reporters — short-circuiting the official Microsoft channels — when he has something he wants to say about something they’ve written, or something they should be writing about, at times unrelated to Microsoft.

The messages are frequently chiding in tone, but also constructive in spirit — genuinely trying to help the misguided recipient understand something. And more often than not, his points are dead on.

In his farewell email to his team, sent from his Surface, Sinofsky signaled that he won’t sit idle for long. “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. My passion for building products is as strong as ever and I look forward focusing my energy and creativity along similar lines.”

He also sought to head off speculation about his departure. “Some might notice a bit of chatter speculating about this decision or timing. I can assure you that none could be true as 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.”

Sinofsky also poked fun at his habit of writing extraordinarily long blog posts. “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, and strive to be less memorable than the products and teams with which I have been proudly and humbly associated. The brevity of this announcement is simply a feature.”

I was never on board with the speculation that Sinofsky would be the next CEO of Microsoft, and with this news it’s pretty clear that my hunch was right, absent a triumphant return. But as the CEO of his own company, he would be formidable. It will be fascinating to see what he does next.

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Comments

  • http://twitter.com/keithccurtis Keith Curtis

    I can’t understand why any of the long-timers are still there. There are many better opportunities outside. The future of technology is disparate communities cooperating to do big things. Much of what Steve worked on is none of that. The Windows store is a Potemkin village compared to what Linux offers: http://packages.debian.org/stable/ India is building $50 Android tablets, leveraging the hardware and software of those who came before. The .Net platform is losing to Python: http://scipy.org/Topical_Software Etc.

    • guest

      Your understanding isn’t required. And your shilling for Linux has nothing to do with the topic of this article.

    • xmsft

      .Net platform losing to Python? Phleeease. Have you used .Net recently?

      • Guest

        Uhm, has anyone?

        • Mike

          Heard of stackoverflow?

        • NuKaira

          Well kids fresh out of school living on frozen pizza and ramen noodles like free open source stuff, I give you that.

          • Kevin Haroldsen

            Them and Google.

  • Patrick Husting

    One person doesn’t run the whole division of Windows. There are many other GREAT managers and motivators there.

  • http://twitter.com/counterblow the person

    pft. I applaud him. He doesn’t suffer fools (CNET, other troll publications). We need more guys like him at the top, and we need them to be actively going after the troll media. I hope he sues you and all of the other tech rags over the specious and libelous character assassinations going on today.

  • RayC

    I don’t agree at all. It is much more productive to be mindful and polite vs. prickly. If you personality has the ability to grapple when it is required and win with honor,
    then why not just take the high road? Divisiveness is a cancer and not putting
    effort into being mindful is just stupid, arrogant and destructive. Be Altruistic
    80% of the time and a tiger 20%, or only as a last resort. Bullying is passé and caveman behavior. We need to evolve… This is yet another bold and progressive
    move by Microsoft and with the latest house cleaning they are coming back with
    gusto!

    • Forrest Corbett

      You’re right, Apple should have never bought Steve Jobs back ;)

      (The difference is that when you’re on an equal level with others, you need to treat them as equals.)

  • Guest

    A modest start for the Surface (quote Ballmer) and Sinofsky leaving is all one needs to know about the state of Microsoft and Windows 8. And Wall Street reacted accordingly.

    • guest

      The quote about Surface was misreported. If you’re going to troll, at least stay current.

      • Guest

        And Wall Street’s reaction is misreported too, right? What does it take for MS fanboys to stop being in denial. Just go to the MS store and see for yourself how “hot” the Surface sells.

        • guest

          No. Otherwise I would have corrected you on that too.

          • Guest

            So I checked the french source (Le Parisien) from two days ago and still don’t see how it is misreported. But regardless, my main premise still holds, that all of this and now Sinofsky isn’t a good sign for MS. If I’m a troll for pointing it out, so be it. You go ahead and enjoy your Surface and Zune.

          • guest

            Guess you missed this and a few dozen like it, huh?:

            http://www.geekwire.com/2012/modest-ballmers-microsoft-surface-comment-means/

            You’re not a troll for pointing it out. You pointed it out because you’re a troll. Get the difference?

          • Guest

            You think that if it was a huge success Ballmer would have bothered talking about a modest start? And Sinofsky got fired because the Surface is flying off the shelves? And Wall Street is just biased? Dream on MS fanboy, this product is crashing hard, even Microsoft employees are beginning to notice. Maybe you’re a troll, ever considered that?

          • guest

            What part of that story did you have trouble understanding, troll?

          • Guest

            Conversation is over.

  • Sherm

    Does the average consumer really care about Microsoft these days? They’ve let the public down for far too long and rarely do they come even close to the over zealous promises about their products. Always the same…just wait until the next version, and you’ll see.:)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kelly-Smith/573153409 Kelly Smith

    I think what he has accomplished is incredible. I think the reasons that were posited for his departure are unfortunate. He wasn’t a “team player?” The guy has been there for 20 years. A part of me feels like Microsoft may be laying blame in the wrong places. The spotlight and scrutiny should perhaps return to Ballmer.

  • guest

    A misfit? He worked there for more than twenty years. AFAIK he succeeded at everything he touched, from Office to Windows. Virtually all the negative character traits being attributed to him were equally true of Steve Jobs, and Jobs is praised as a genious and was the best CEO of the past decade. Chastising Sinofsky now for being secretive and running a tight ship seems to ignore the fact that before him, Windows was leaking product plans years before they could be delivered (allowing others to copy and in some cases preempt them) and the development cycle was out of control. Sinofsky has an excellent grasp on technology and at least had a vision for where MS needed to go. That’s more than you can say about Ballmer. And the market clearly disagrees with you, Maryjo, and others, because the stock is down nearly 3% on this news.

    Gates has been backing the wrong horse for more than a decade: Ballmer. And he did so again here, instead of firing Ballmer and making Sinofsky CEO. This idea that MS is somehow going to colloborate internally in the wake of Sinofsky’s departure is a joke. Decades of culture says it won’t. The only way MS will ever get there is with a strong autocrat as CEO, as Apple did. Sinofsky was the only exec at MS with the demonstrated ability to do that. Now he’s gone. The company loses. Shareholders have already lost nearly $10 billion just today. And now a person of Sinofsky’s talent, with his intimate knowledge of Windows and its entire product roadmap, is free to go to a competitor.
    The main misfits at Microsoft are Ballmer and Gates. And the company’s relevance, competitive position, future prospects, and valuation will continue to decline as long as both are still calling the shots.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Hassanwatson Hassan El Sherbiny

    Absolutely wrong decision, very bad… u r entitled to your style of managemnet and leadership as long as it`s productive and profitable, also, as long as it is somehwow in line with teh guidelines and models of the whole. there is definitly something ebhind this decision, it`s not just about his boldness and mirror face that does not show any emotions orconcerns or because he doesn`t have an Avatar pic. Really???? As an above average consumer, I do not really care about Microsoft anymore and apparently no one does…. All my products are Apple!!! No service issues, no concerns, best CS ever. Microsoft ndoes need to step up and play it`s game.

  • sliverton

    MSFT down 3% this morning. The $6b man?

    • guest

      The loss of Sinofsky is easily worth that much. I’m surprised it’s not down more. It probably will be once the full extent of this loss sinks in. That’s the real measure of his value – what the market thinks, not MS’s internal politics. If Ballmer had been fired and Sinofsky named CEO instead, the stock would likely have gone up by at least that amount.

      The only good news here is that it occurs right before shareholders get to vote on Ballmer and the board. The bad news is that MS’s shareholders have proved to be sheep in the past.

    • http://twitter.com/fijiaaron Aaron Evans

      I think it’s the scapegoating more than the man. If Microsoft’s reaction to poor execution and worse products is to fire 1 manager, it’s time to jump ship. Likewise Apple is down by a similar amount over the past 2 weeks when their reaction to the iPhone 5/IOS 6 debacle was to blame Scott Forstall.

  • http://twitter.com/mercerisland mercerisland

    20+ years, an incredible track record…moving on to new challenges because a CEO spot isn’t available isn’t a death knell for any company — remember Alan Mullaly left Boeing after being passed over for CEO? Did Boeing go away and beocme irrelevant? And Mulally landed just fine (being a CEO of Ford).

  • Bob

    Very harsh title, Todd. And imo, at least, undeserved.

  • http://twitter.com/fijiaaron Aaron Evans

    With the complete flop of Windows 8 and Surface, is it any wonder?

  • ComradeSteveB

    There’s one thing Ballmer is good at: surviving.

    By that measure, this is brilliant.

    Like he has in the past, he’s eliminated someone that could answer the question “but who would run Microsoft if the board got rid of Ballmer”. Stalin and Saddam Hussein showed how that’s a smart strategy for autocrats: people will take bad leadership over chaos most of the time.

    So, this is par for the course there. But the additional brilliance here is by eliminating his rival just after Win8 launches, Ballmer is protecting himself if Win8 isn’t successful. Anything short of success and he can say “oh, it was Sinofsky’s fault and I was so on top of things that I saw it was a problem and got rid of him less than three weeks after launch”.

    He secures his power base from a rival and ensures that any blame for failure goes to Sinofsky.

    It is brilliant from a survival point of view. Give the man credit there.

    The other person I’d be watching is Kevin Turner. We don’t hear about him much but you don’t get far at WalMart by being nice. And it’s often the ones you don’t hear about that wield the most power.

    However you cut it though, Microsoft watching now rivals “Kremlin watching” as a spectator sport!

  • Steve Jobs

    Now it’s time to come over from the dark side, Sinofsky.
    Come work where innovation is our motto.

    • Guest

      I doubt Apple would hire him. Amazon right here in Seattle however …

  • http://blog.nordquist.org Brett Nordquist

    I wonder if Ballmer is systematically removing anyone who might be considered to take this place. This is an odd move that seems to signal Ballmer did not like the direction Windows 8 was taking the company.

    • guest

      Yeah, that’s it. Oh wait, except for that little thing called a board of Directors. And if Ballmer didn’t like the direction W8 was taking the company he wouldn’t have backed its development.

      • http://blog.nordquist.org Brett Nordquist

        Yeah, that’s it, because the board of directors know exactly what’s going in a company the size of Microsoft. Did the board like Vista too?

        • guest

          If you think Ballmer fired his most valuable President three weeks into the most important launches in MS’s history, knowing the stock would get hit at least as much as it did, in a year when it has again performed worse than the market and just weeks before the shareholder meeting, and did all that without briefing and securing the approval of the board ahead of time, all so he could remove a potential rival, then you’re delusional.

          • http://blog.nordquist.org Brett Nordquist

            You didn’t read what I wrote. I never said he didn’t confer with the board. Given how long they’ve stuck with Ballmer, I don’t have a lot of trust the board to make long term decisions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lawlam Lawrence Lam

    You can’t spell Misfit without MSFT

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