Ever since former Windows chief Steven Sinofsky left the company last year, it’s been all change in the executive ranks at Microsoft – culminating in a "far-reaching realignment" of its structure and Steve Ballmer’s surprise resignation.
Some of the job changes have been obvious promotions and logical repositionings, but there are also some veteran Microsoft leaders moving back into product teams. And some of those are top secret developments that might represent the future of Microsoft and its products.
One strategy, one Microsoft
It sounded pretty simple when Ballmer first announced it; common teams for marketing, legal, HR, finance and the other things that keep the company running, plus four areas of engineering – OS, apps, cloud and devices, with the Dynamics business tools staying separate because it needs special attention.
Terry Myerson’s success with Windows Phone – a new OS that’s proving popular enough to give Apple’s iOS some strong competition in most countries that aren’t the US – made him a good choice to look after the core OS group.
Julie Larson-Green moved from running Windows to running the devices team, Qi Lu shifted from running Bing to controlling apps (everything from Office to Skype) and Satya Nadella added cloud services like Xbox Live and Outlook.com to enterprise responsibilities that already included Office 365, Azure and SQL Server.
But then there’s the Business Development and Evangelism team, run by Tony Bates who used to be in charge of Skype, and the Advanced Strategy team under Eric Rudder.
The next Microsoft CEO?
Bates has made the list of rumoured candidates in Microsoft’s CEO search, possibly because he’s been a CEO already at Skype. Before that he was the senior vice president of Cisco’s enterprise, commercial and small business group, and before that he was building the Internet (at least the part of it that US telecoms giant MCI – now part of Verizon – was responsible for).
His current job is trying to make all Microsoft’s various partners happy, from the OEMs who make PCs and smartphones to the developers that Microsoft wants to get building apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. He’s also responsible for Microsoft’s relationship with chip makers like ARM and Intel, where Microsoft wants to keep them coming up with chips that run Windows well rather than pushing Chromebooks.
Microsoft’s 10 year search partnership with Yahoo is also under his remit. It’s supposed to last until 2020, although Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has been trying to put the brakes on the agreement and could potentially opt out by 2015.
It might not matter. The partnership is less important than it once was, as Bing is slowly taking market share away from Yahoo. But in the US, Yahoo’s 11% share is a welcome addition to Bing’s 18% share – both of which are still dwarfed by Google’s 67% US share of search traffic.
That makes Bates’ new job less something to keep him busy and more a key part of connecting Microsoft to the rest of the industry. It’s the kind of thing that Andy Lees was supposed to do with partners like Barnes & Noble, but Microsoft will demand better results than a Windows 8 Nook app.
What Microsoft does next
So far, we’ve talked about what Microsoft does today. Eric Rudder’s job is about what Microsoft does next.
We haven’t heard much from Rudder in the last few years. Back when Steven Sinofsky was running the Office team, Rudder was in charge of developer tools like Visual Studio as well as the .NET platform. He’s worked on Microsoft enterprise products during his career, stretching all the way back to the FoxPro database. In 2005 he became vice president of Technical Strategy; an internal think tank that worked for Bill Gates planning, well, Microsoft’s technical strategy.
When Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie decided he would retire come 2014 (he’s currently Ballmer’s senior advisor), Rudder took on most of Mundie’s job, including Microsoft Research, Trustworthy Computing and the Technology Policy Group.
Ballmer credited Mundie with "tighten[ing] the connection between MSR and the devices and services we are bringing to market" – a pat on the back for helping to get Microsoft-developed technology into products like Kinect, Xbox One, Surface, Office, Windows Phone and Bing over the last couple of years.
Now Microsoft has split what used to be the Advanced Strategy and Research Group in half. Harry Shum, the head of Bing Engineering who used to run MSR in China takes over research and the other tasks. While Rudder gets a new title of executive vice president for advanced strategy which sounds a little like the chief software architect role Bill Gates took on when he handed the CEO job to Ballmer.
"It is critical that a senior leader is accountable for certain key, cross company technology initiatives," said Ballmer – without naming them.
Mysterious future plans
There’s even less detail on what Dean Hachamovitch, the head of Internet Explorer for the last nine years, is going to do next, although he announced on the IE blog that he’s "excited to start a new team to take on something new".
The rumour is that he’s heading up a group to analyse how people use Microsoft products in order to come up with improvements and new ideas, which sounds like something that belongs in Rudder’s group.
Rudder and Hachamovitch aren’t the only senior Microsoft executives working on mysterious future plans. Rick Rashid was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University doing research in everything from computer vision, networks and security to operating systems before he came to Microsoft; he developed the Mach OS, which is (ironically) what the Mac OS X kernel is based on (Apple’s former chief software technology officer AvieTevanian also worked on Mach).
Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold persuaded Rashid to come to Microsoft in 1991 to run Microsoft Research and "boldly go where no one has gone before" – you can read the original pitch (PDF) for the group here. He ran Microsoft Research for 22 years. But this July he joined the Operating Systems Engineering Group, which spans OS work across Microsoft’s product line.
Crossing the Threshold
That means that what comes after Windows 8 (and the Threshold update that’s rumoured to bring common experiences to Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox in 2015) could be something that includes a lot more of the discoveries from Microsoft’s many experimental operating systems like Singularity, Verve, Barrelfish and Drawbridge.
Having Rashid in the OS group suggests Microsoft wants to do more than cherry pick ideas from research for building future versions of Windows. Microsoft had the idea of running Windows on an ARM chip before the iPad ever came out, but it was slow off the mark and, as everyone knows, lost the tablet market to Apple.
As well as getting all the different product teams working on a single Microsoft strategy, Microsoft needs to be ahead of the next big thing rather than running to catch up. These new teams look like the way Microsoft is working on that.
- Now why not read Best free Microsoft Office alternatives: 5 suites to save you money