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Windows head Steven Sinofsky leaves Microsoft. Changes ahead for the Windows 8 platform?

November 12, 2012

The past few weeks have seen big upheavals in the technology industry. We recently reported on iOS chief Scott Forstall’s departure from Apple, after a long stint as a top Steve Jobs lieutenant, and potential CEO in waiting. Today, Steven Sinofsky, widely regarded as a potential CEO-in-waiting for Microsoft, has left the company.

Details are still sketchy, but what’s known at this point is that the announcement was quite abrupt, leading to speculation that Sinofsky’s departure may have been due to his differences with CEO Steve Ballmer. The official Microsoft statement is that the decision is mutual, though.

“I am grateful for the many years of work that Steven has contributed to the company,” says Ballmer, citing how the latest products by the company have marked the “launch of a new era at Microsoft.” Meanwhile, Sinofsky has likewise stated his appreciation for Microsoft as a company. “It is impossible to count the blessings I have received over my years at Microsoft. I am humbled by the professionalism and generosity of everyone I have had the good fortune to work with at this awesome company.”

Polarizing figure

Sinofsky started out as a software design engineer at Microsoft in 1989, quickly climbing up the ladder to hold various key positions: technical assistant for Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (then a top job for a young Microsoftie), senior VP for Office, senior VP for Windows and Windows Live, and eventually president of the Windows division. Sinofsky is widely credited for his revamp of Windows from what was then a flop (Vista) to the successful Windows 7 and the latest Windows 8 iterations.

Windows 8 has been well-received so far, although Microsoft has been questioned for its decision to use the RT version on tablets rather than the Windows Phone 8 variant meant for smaller devices.

But while Sinofsky has been lauded for his technical merits and talent, his leadership capabilities may have been put into question. And under the surface, this might be one of the reasons for his departure. In a statement to CNet, a Microsoft executive says this is a critical time in which Microsoft has to ensure a strong leadership. In this regard, Sinofsky’s polarizing character may not necessarily be what the company needs. “[A]s you think about future leadership, collaboration will be critical in a way it has never has before.”

What this means for the mobile industry

Where Sinofsky is headed after his stint with Microsoft is speculation at this point. Will he focus on a new startup? Will he join forces with Scott Forstall and bring us yet another cutting edge mobile and computing platform? Time will tell. Microsoft has appointed new executives to take on the roles left by Sinofsky: Julie Larson-Green to head Windows software and hardware engineering, and CFO and CMO Tami Reller to assume responsibilities as the Windows business unit head.

For now, Microsoft says the leadership changes will likewise drive its next wave of products. The launch of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 is a turning point for Microsoft. What will the company do to better compete against iOS and Android in the mobile space? Will the folks now at the helm of Windows drive it to success as cloud computing and mobile platforms?