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November 13, 2012 7:48 pm
Steve Ballmer’s leadership of Microsoft has been thrown into the spotlight by the sudden departure of the software company’s best-regarded engineering chief and the man seen as its most likely heir apparent, according to close followers of the company.
Steven Sinofsky, head of the company’s core PC operating system business, left late on Monday, little more than two weeks after completing Microsoft’s most important product launch for nearly 20 years with Windows 8.
A person close to Microsoft said the departure was not linked to customer reaction to Windows 8. Although the new software has received only a lukewarm reception so far from the business users who are Microsoft’s main customers, most analysts say that it will be some time before its success can be judged.
The loss of an executive who had been credited with bringing a new rigour to Microsoft’s engineering processes has thrust Mr Ballmer to the fore as the company launches its full counter-offensive against Apple in tablets and smartphones.
“All eyes are on Ballmer now to pull this strategy together,” said Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC, a tech research firm.
Simmering dissatisfaction among some investors over the long malaise in Microsoft’s share price has put pressure on Mr Ballmer as his 12-year period at the top has progressed, though those concerns have been less apparent in recent months as Microsoft has hit a series of important product milestones and won stronger reviews for some of its latest software.
The company’s board also pressured Mr Ballmer two years ago to overhaul his senior management group to boost the company’s performance, prompting a series of high-level departures.
Mr Sinofsky had emerged as Microsoft’s most effective engineering manager after being brought in to head the Windows division in the wake of Windows Vista, a product that was delayed and scaled back multiple times during its development. However, he was known as an abrasive executive whose style created friction with other top managers at the company, effectively ruling him out as an eventual successor to Mr Ballmer, according to one person familiar with the company’s thinking.
The departure reflects an attempt by Mr Ballmer to bring more cohesion to his senior management group as he tries to overcome old divisional rivalries in the company, several analysts said.
It echoes the recent departure from Apple of senior software executive Scott Forstall and highlights common challenges for both companies as they try to create products that more seamlessly combine hardware, software and services, said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research. “This is an area where Microsoft has to improve, but is far behind,” he said.
Mr Ballmer has taken direct management control of the Windows business himself this week. The company has put a new management structure in place for its operating system business, dividing Mr Sinofsky’s engineering and business responsibilities between two more junior executives and leaving Mr Ballmer in overall charge.
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