A tale of two execs: Microsoft's Sinofsky and Apple's Forstall

<b>commentary</b> Both were growing in influence, with a reputation for being difficult. Now one is the architect of Microsoft's comeback attempt in consumer markets and the other is being forced out of Apple. What happened?

Jim Kerstetter
Jim Kerstetter Staff writer, CNET News
Jim Kerstetter has been writing about the high-tech industry since the 1990s. He has been a senior editor at PC Week and a Silicon Valley correspondent at BusinessWeek. He is now senior executive editor at CNET News. He moved back to Boston because he missed the Red Sox. E-mail Jim.
3 min read
Steven Sinofsky talks up Microsoft's Surface tablet at the company's unveiling event at Chelsea Piers in New York. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

The company's legendary co-founder was his mentor, and in many ways he embodied what's good and bad about his employer. He had a habit of picking political fights with fellow executives, many of whom say he zealously promoted his group's work at the expense of the rest of the company.

Am I talking about Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky, the Windows chief who was onstage last week for the launch of Windows 8, or Apple's Scott Forstall, the iOS software chief who is being shown the door after the disappointment of Apple maps (and perhaps making too many enemies inside the company)?

Of course, I'm talking about both. Bloomberg's Peter Burrows and Adam Satariano craft a great behind-the-scenes look at what may have led to Forstall's planned departure and the increased roles of Apple design guru Jony Ive and iTunes chief Eddy Cue. I worked with Burrows for five years, and I saw firsthand how he's one of the most deeply sourced Apple beat writers out there. When Peter describes what happened, you can believe him. In a nutshell, when Forstall refused to sign Apple's apology note for the problems with the new Apple maps, his days were numbered.

Making matters worse, despite his admirable track record running software development for the iPhone and iPad, he could be -- much like his mentor, Steve Jobs -- difficult to work with. So much so that Ive and he rarely sat in the same meetings. When Jobs was still running Apple, he was able to keep the tension under control. But without Jobs playing mediator, it became difficult to manage. The Bloomberg story continued:

Supporters admire Forstall's ability to manage massive technical complexity while pushing his team to innovate. Critics said he was overly concerned with empire building and pushing through favored features while blocking other teams' ideas.

As I read that paragraph, it occurred to me: They could just as well be talking about Sinofsky, the controversial executive who was the driving force in the development of Windows 8. Last week, CNET's Jay Greene had an in-depth look at Sinofsky, a longtime Microsoft exec who was once Bill Gates' technical assistant and, like Gates, brings significant technical prowess to the job. And like Forstall, Sinofsky has a way of ticking off his fellow executives with turf fights and an unwillingness to accommodate other groups inside Microsoft. The nut of our story comes down to this passage:

But Sinofsky's critics say he's elevated those battles to a new level, thriving by marginalizing rivals while running the company's most profitable businesses, Windows and Office. Along the way, he's created a rigid product development process that puts more control in his hands and, those critics say, diminish the ability to innovate at Microsoft.

There's one big difference, of course: Forstall had years of success, but some aspects of the last two iPhone releases were disappointments. The Siri voice-recognition service failed to live up to its billing (personally, I still find it to be more of a neat proof-of-concept than a useful tool) and the Apple maps gaffe was, well, a head-scratcher.

Sinofsky has had no such mishaps...at least not yet. He gained a reputation for metronome-like consistency while running the development of the Office suite, and he resuscitated Microsoft's reputation when he took over Windows development after the Vista disaster. Windows 7 wasn't a blockbuster, but it eased fears that Microsoft's quality control had gone off the rails.

Scott Forstall at an Apple iPhone event. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

While the jury is still out on the success of Windows 8, early returns have been positive. Microsoft, for the first time in years, appears to have that hard-to-define "buzz" among consumers again. Whether that translates into sales is another matter. But it's a lot better than customers fleeing, as they did after the release of Windows Vista.

If there's a lesson to be learned, I suppose it's that personality doesn't matter all that much in the executive ranks. The youthful Bill Gates had a reputation for being every bit as incorrigible as Sinofsky. And Jobs, well, he was called many things, but "swell guy" was rarely one of them. Success doesn't justify unpleasant behavior, but it often excuses it.

That is, until something goes wrong. That's when the knives come out, as Forstall finally learned. Could he have benefited from some well-timed humility and signed that apology note? Perhaps. But humility and playing nice isn't exactly what made him a success in the first place. Same with Sinofsky.

But he'd better not screw up.