Let’s start with Apple: We can assume that the recent executive changes at our favorite fruit company were the result of failures. iOS head Scott Forstall apparently got dumped for his Maps misfire, his refusal to sign the letter apologizing for the mapping defects, and perhaps for being a jerk. John Browett was fired because he was doing a poor job managing the Apple Store retail chain.
While there is an awful lot of speculation about the specifics surrounding these two departures, I think the foregoing sentences sum up the major reasons for the changes, not to mention the new corporate pecking order at Apple that may mean big changes in the OS look and feel going forward.
Sure, some suggested that making these changes was really a bad thing, that it shows a lack of leadership at Apple. I think it’s precisely the reverse. Things weren’t working properly, and CEO Tim Cook did what he felt was necessary to right the ship.
Now with Microsoft, there are questions about how well Windows 8 and the Surface tablet are doing. CEO Steve Ballmer boasted that some four million copies of the new OS were purchased during the first three days on sale. It may sound encouraging, except for the fact that Apple, with the much smaller Mac market share, reported three million downloads of OS 10.8 Mountain Lion during the first four days of availability. As percentages go, Apple did far better.
Understand that Microsoft is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising Windows 8 and the Surface tablet. How many ads did you see for Mountain Lion during the last few months? I’m waiting for the answer, because I’ve seen none, but I don’t watch every TV ad, and I don’t dwell on radio spots either. I would have thought Windows 8 would have done far better, considering all the publicity it’s received, and maybe there will be new stats revealing amazing sales in the near future. Or maybe not.
Then there’s the Surface tablet. How many did Microsoft move into the sweaty hands of eager customers? Well, despite some early reports of sell outs, Ballmer says sales are “modest.” That doesn’t sound too promising. Sure, I suppose alleged limited availability can be used as an excuse, since there aren’t that many Microsoft Stores around. But the Surface is also available online, where there are no limits to how many can be sold, except for available stocks. Modest indeed!
But the biggest indication of the problems Microsoft might be encountering with these new products is news of the departure of long-time executive Steve Sinofsky, who headed the Windows division. While the usual “sources” told Kara Swisher, of AllThingsD, that Sinofsky’s departure had been in the works for several weeks, you have to wonder why the person in charge of Microsoft’s most important products of the decade really stepped down. It can’t just be because Sinofsky wasn’t easy to work with. He’d been with Microsoft since 1989, and served as President of the Windows division since 2009.
In other words, Sinofsky shepherded the development of Windows 8. If Windows 8, and, in turn, the Surface tablet, which was designed to be the flagship product running the new OS, haven’t hit the ground running, who gets the blame? Well, no doubt it’s Sinofsky. It can’t be the result of deciding, after putting up with the guy for 23 years, that Ballmer really didn’t like him. Oh yes, the reason mentioned for Sinofsky’s departure is that Microsoft is seeking to get rid of the fiefdoms that plague the company, and make all the divisions play nicely with each other.
But the real problem with Windows 8 may be best expressed in a survey published this week in USA Today. Clearly Microsoft is facing serious resistance in getting customers to consider the new OS. Worse, “about one-third of Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP users who are ready to buy a new personal computer say they intend to switch to an Apple product.” I expect the iPad is high on their shopping lists, but Mac sales may also grow, despite rumors of further delays in delivering the 2012 iMacs.
With the Sinofsky era now history, you have to wonder when Microsoft is going to hire a new executive tasked with the job of fixing what’s wrong with Windows 8 and related problems. But that is a tall order, and it may take a few years for anyone to accomplish major changes, assuming Windows 9 is well along in the development process. It’s not as if Microsoft moves terribly fast.
One story about Sinofsky’s departure contained the offhand suggestion that maybe Microsoft would try to hire departing iOS executive Scott Forstall to become “Mr. Fixit” for Windows. That makes little sense, however, for two reasons. First is that Forstall will remain a salaried advisor to Tim Cook for the next year — no doubt to keep him off the job market and ease the transition to the new leadership — and then there’s the expected non-compete clause. Besides, Forstall is a very rich man, so does he really need to stay in the rat race?
Other speculation has it that Steve Ballmer may be the next to go. Although Ballmer is his pal Bill Gates’ handpicked successor at Microsoft, the company hasn’t done so well over the last decade. The various Windows OS upgrades have been either too little, or with Windows 8, too much. Microsoft’s mobile initiative has gone nowhere. Despite decent reviews, people aren’t lining up to buy smartphones powered by Windows Phone. The modest launch of the Surface tablet is yet another potential nail in Ballmer’s coffin.
But even if Ballmer is next to go, where does Microsoft go to find someone to fix Microsoft’s ongoing problems? Does Gates take on the interim CEO position to keep things going while a new executive is being sought? Is there any executive on the planet who’d want to attempt to sort out this mess? Firing someone isn’t very hard. Finding the proper replacement at Microsoft may be near impossible.