What Sinofsky's departure says about Microsoft - and the future of Windows

Few significant products of any kind are delivered without a driving force at the top. Steven Sinofsky has been an undeniably polarizing figure who many have criticised as uncompromising and there have been persistent questions about his relationships with other teams and executives at Microsoft.

Some journalists found him hard to work with; others found him helpful and approachable, although also a very private person.

Not wanting to be the story

Problematically, he never cooperated with people wanting to write profiles on him, saying simply that he wasn't the story; the book he co-wrote was about managing large teams rather than about his own views.

there have been persistent questions about his relationships with other teams and executives at Microsof

There have been questions about his relationships with other teams at Microsof

That meant that while anyone who has been unhappy enough at Microsoft to leave has been happy to criticize his management style, people who enjoyed working with and respected him - and his desire not to be the story - wouldn't speak about that on the record. That leaves most profiles with a negative and unbalanced view of a man with an intensely dry sense of humour it seems to have been easy to miss.

Perhaps if he had spoken with a British accent rather than an American one, it would have been obvious when he was being ironic; as when he first announced plans for Windows 7 and fixing the problems of Vista in a throwaway line about the UAC (User Access Control) prompt being "so famous I thought for a few moments it would surpass the fame of Clippy - and I'm now associated with both of those personally."

His considered way of speaking and superb poker face meant he could tell us in 2008 that there was "nothing I would say right now" about Windows on ARM without giving anything away.

Windows RT

Is Windows RT the right play for Microsoft? Sinofsky thought so

He certainly didn't think of himself as a dictator. In the same interview he told us "the very last thing great product development needs is one person saying how it should be" and that dictating what features should be in Windows "wouldn't be how I would work; that's like 180-degrees wrong". The tributes from former colleagues on his Facebook page don't paint a picture of a leader universally disliked by his team.

He was involved in initiatives across Microsoft from recruiting and mentoring interns to championing the XD disability support group at Microsoft (and took a particular interest in accessibility features in Office and Windows. As usual, the reality is more complex than the headlines.

What does all this mean for Windows?

In the short term, far less than you think.

Don't expect the Start menu to return, or the Metro name, or the Zune brand, or a new commitment to Silverlight; don't expect the Start screen or Windows Store apps to go away. Some of those are changes that had to be made, others reflect the priorities of other divisions like Xbox.

And most significantly, while the business side of Windows goes to Tami Reller, who is a natural choice in the short term given she already has significant business and marketing responsibilities within Microsoft,

Sinofsky didn t want to be the story

Sinofsky: didn't want to be the story

Windows development has been handed over to Julie Larson-Green, who was behind Office's ribbon redesign - and the Windows 8 UI (she gave the first ever demonstration of Windows 8 at D9).

Sinofsky brought Larson-Green to the Windows division along with others of his Office team, like Jensen Harris who was responsible for the design of the Office ribbon and much of the user experience of Windows 8.

Chris Anderson, one of the architects of the WinRT runtime said recently at Build that something that developers viewed as a limitation in WinRT was there "because that's the way Jensen told us it was supposed to be".

And certainly, handling the development of Windows over to someone's long-time lieutenant doesn't signal dissatisfaction with what they achieved.

In fact, just as Windows 8 was under development six months before Windows 8 shipped, work on Windows 9 has been going on, probably for months already. If, as we expect, Windows is moving to faster releases, especially for Windows RT, a substantial amount of work will already have been done.

The Windows team has already delivered what would normally have been a large part of a service pack before RTM.

In the long run, switching Windows over to a more sustained development model may be as much an achievement to remember Steven Sinofsky for as rescuing Windows from the Vista and Longhorn debacles and delivering the unquestionably successful Windows 7 and Windows 8, on time and at high quality.

there have been persistent questions about his relationships with other teams and executives at Microsof

The success of Windows 7 and the Metro UI will be Sinofsky's legacy