Is becoming Chief Experience Officer a step down from running Devices and Studios for Windows and Office veteran Julie Larson-Green? Is Microsoft demoting her to make room for Stephen Elop?
Or is it putting her back to work at what she’s been doing for the last decade; improving the experience of Microsoft software?
Back when the Nokia acquisition was announced last September, Steve Ballmer said Elop would run the devices group because "the critical mass" would be in phones (and he brings with him leaders like Jo Harlow and Timo Toikkanen who lead the smartphone and featurephone teams).
Moving Larson-Green looks like a signal that Microsoft devices like the Surface will become part of the Nokia team, rather than Nokia getting swallowed up in the old Microsoft way of doing things. That’s similar to the way Microsoft has kept Yammer and Skype as separate brands, doing more to integrate and develop them but also using them to drive new cloud and service-friendly ways of doing things in the Office and Lync teams. If there was any battle between the Nokia and Microsoft directions, Nokia seems to have won.
And as Xbox already has a strong leader in Yusuf Mehdi who launched MSN, signed the Yahoo search deal and helped launch Bing, it’s hard to see what she’d have ended up doing.
Surface 2 united
When we spoke to her at the Surface 2 launch and asked what Windows 8.1 did for the new tablet, Larson-Green emphasized the way it brought Microsoft tools and services together. "The power in the Surface device to run the Halo games and the full Office suite at the same time, snapped side by side, the low-light camera working with Skype [to adjust exposure automatically]… We spent a lot of time working across software and services with the devices team to make sure it all comes together in a seamless package."
That’s something Microsoft still needs to do better, and if there’s one word Ballmer said more than devices or services when he announced the One Microsoft reorganisation, it was ‘experiences’.
"We’re the company that delivers great high value experiences for work and for play," he said, name-checking Xbox and Office and Skype, promising "to define new experiences in expression, meeting, research, tasks, the way corporate information gets managed and held securely, and much, much more". It’s not just devices and services, it’s "a set of high value experiences, delivered through devices and services."
New CEO Satya Nadella talks about the importance of "being able to build devices that encapsulate the rich experiences people now expect" because "devices are where experiences come together".
It’s how Larson-Green herself described the point of the reorg: "Bringing together the experience for customers at a Microsoft level".
And experience is what Larson-Green has worked on since she left the Visual C++ team. She worked on the user interface of IE 3 and 4 then moved to Office in 1997, working on FrontPage and SharePoint before running the UI design for Office XP, Office 2003 and Office 2007. That’s where she started work with Jensen Harris on the Office ribbon that first appeared in Office 2007, memorably body-slamming the six-foot-six Harris out of her way when the 2001 Nisqually earthquake hit during their first meeting.
It’s a perfect example of both her determination and her ability to get people to work with her even when the situation looks unpromising; Harris was impressed rather than offended. She and Harris even starred in a fairy-tale comic illustrating the advantages of the ribbon called The Enchanted Office.
She moved to the Windows team with Steven Sinofsky and her job title for the development of Windows 7 was corporate vice president of Windows Experience. In 2009 hear team started on the touch-first interface that became Windows 8. For Windows 8.1, she started to look beyond the Windows experience and persuaded the Bing team to put a fifth of their resources into building the smart search feature as an experience to showcase results from Bing alongside your own files.
Even if she is reporting to Qi Lu, head of the applications and services group (that’s everything from Office software to Bing), rather than directly to Nadella, her new role running the My Life & Work team looks like a position that both fits her skills and is something Microsoft needs. It might look like a demotion but it’s more likely to suit her than ending up as a third wheel under Elop.
No poisoned chalice
Larson-Green’s departure means most of the Windows senior leadership has changed since the launch of Windows 8 and the departure of Steven Sinofsky. Some have retired, some have moved elsewhere in the company; veteran Jon DeVaan left the company, OEM lead Mike Angiulo is now corporate vice president for Xbox hardware, IE leader Dean Hachamovitch is running a mysterious special project – but senior VP Antoine Leblond is still there.
The team that creates the core Windows OS is intact (and supplemented by the teams building Windows Phone and Xbox), with Jensen Harris and Sam Moreau still driving design, Chris Jones running Windows services like the Store and what used to be the Live apps, and Gabriel Aul and Denis Flanagan looking after partners.
Although it’s fashionable to see Windows 8 as a failure, working on it isn’t a badge of shame; with trusted senior leaders like Terry Myerson and Joe Belfiore and research head Rick Rashid running Windows, it’s far from abandoned.
But ‘big Windows’ as it was once called internally, is no longer the centre of gravity for Microsoft. It’s only one of 16 billion-dollar businesses inside Microsoft, although it’s the basis of several of those businesses (Windows Server and Azure, Xbox, Office 365, Exchange and Lync, SharePoint, SQL Server and Dynamics all rely on core Windows because that’s what Windows Server is built on).
The emphasis is increasingly on cloud, and the services that run on cloud – because Microsoft is no longer a platform company. That means Windows may become increasingly invisible, as it turns into plumbing for services.
As it stops being a high-visibility profit engine for Microsoft, it stops being an attractive team for executives who want to build their career on products and services and sales, so it’s natural for them to move on.