Sinofsky promotion to Windows president much deserved, but Ballmer should have done it sooner

The only problem with Microsoft naming Steven Sinofsky president of the Windows division is the timing. He deserved this promotion long ago, and Microsoft has long needed someone in charge of the division.

Microsoft was wrong to wait until Sinofsky's team nearly finished Windows 7 to give out this badly needed promotion. The Client division is hemorrhaging profits, as Vista enthusiasm collapses and PC sales plummet.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer left this important division leaderless for far too long (Kevin Johnson, to whom Sinofsky reported, left the company nearly a year ago). Sure, Sinofsky was officially running Windows development, but he lacked the real authority given to leaders of the four other Microsoft divisions: Business, Entertainment and Devices, Online Services and Server and Tools.

Microsoft named other presidents. In January, Bob Muglia received a well-deserved promotion to president of Server and Tools. In December 2008, Microsoft brought on former Yahoo Qi Lu as president of the Online Services group. Other presidents: Stephen Elop, Business; Robbie Bach, Entertainment and Devices. Client had no one. Until today.

Tough times demand tough leaders. Microsoft's Windows leadership was long overdue for an upgrade -- longer than even the real upgrade from Windows XP.

What really bugs me: Today's announcement -- late as it is -- might have been rushed. Microsoft doesn't usually make big announcements like this one on a Wednesday. They come on Thursdays. Something else: More typically Microsoft announces big promotions after a new Windows version releases to manufacturing or even generally releases.

The announcement's timing stinks of Microsoft's ridiculous management practice of following Google. Google does this, so Microsoft does that. Last night, Google announced plans for Chrome OS, which will compete directly with Windows.

Sinofsky and his team have done a marvelous job turning the Vista disaster into Windows 7's bright future. He deserves more respect than this. Sinofsky's promotion shouldn't be a public relations response to Google's Chrome OS announcement. But that's exactly what it is.

Microsoft, its customers, partners and investors would have benefitted more from a preemptive announcement, coming months ago when Sinfosky needed more authority and the Windows division needed more kick-ass management. Microsoft's core division is in deep trouble, and none of it Sinfosky's making.

Later this month, Microsoft will announce fiscal 2009 fourth quarter and yearly results. If third quarter results are any indication of a growing trend, Windows sales will disappoint again. For third quarter:

- Server and Tools revenue (but not profits) exceeded Client for the first time. Ever.

- Client revenue fell 16 percent year over year to $3.4 billion.

- Client operating income plummeted 19 percent to $2.5 billion.

The recession has hit the PC market hard, and Windows with it. Client suffers from lower overall PC sales and from increases in low-margin netbook shipments. Meanwhile, Vista has sold poorly, with only about 10 percent of enterprises having deployed it.

There is a glimmer of hope:

- Reviewers are generally excited about Windows 7--and they should be.

- "I'm a PC" marketing has revived the Windows brand (and some computer sales).

- Microsoft OEM partners and developers are ready for Seven in ways they weren't for Vista.

But these positives aren't enough. Microsoft's Windows problem is much bigger than global recession sapping PC sales. Its mobile strategy is a disaster, even as Apple and Google advance operating systems scalable from the handset to the PC. Windows scales up from the PC, when it needs to scale up from handsets.

Steven Sinofsky will be the last man standing. He turned around Windows development. But his challenge ahead will be much tougher. Windows relevance is waning. It may be Sinofsky's charge to take Windows into its sunset years. More immediately, he must make a last stand against the "Internet Tidal Wave" Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates wrote about in May 1995.

I predict that Windows' decline is inevitable. No Windows president can stop the tidal wave. But perhaps Sinofsky can guide Windows to ride that wave one last time.

Congratulations, Steven, and good luck. Please give Steve Ballmer a swift kick in the ass for taking so long to promote you. He deserves it.

Joe Wilcox is an independent journalist living in San Diego. He is former editor of Apple Watch and Microsoft Watch for Ziff Davis; former JupiterResearch analyst; and former CNET News.com reporter. He has been writing about technology for 15 years. Around July 11, he will officially launch a new blog, Oddly Together. He can be reached by e-mail at joewilcox (at) gmail.com.

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