Microsoft Online Chief Leaves -- Timing Suggests Long-Term Plan

Last Updated Jul 24, 2008 4:54 PM EDT

It's all for this momentKevin Johnson, one-time Microsoft president of Microsoft's Platforms & Services division, has just left the building to become CEO of Juniper Networks. You can hear the speculation humming â€" he left because he was supposed to make the Yahoo deal work and it didn't, or he left because Steve Ballmer was planning to split the Windows and online businesses into separate groups, or he left because Vista and Microsoft's online efforts were simply sucking wind. Or some combination.

But some of the speculation doesn't square with the realities of the executive recruitment business. You don't decide last week that you want to leave your position and start as CEO of some other company and make the jump today. Those discussions started a minimum of six months ago.

That said, Vista has been a remarkable mess, and the online business is not only being slapped down three ways from Sunday by Google, but Yahoo is still firmly ahead, for gosh sakes. Given what is happening at that company these days, that's a pretty telling statement. It was a good time to move on.

Of real interest is that Ballmer is going to take over the Windows group himself â€" understandable given how much of the company's revenue comes from the operating system, but highly questionable from the view of organizational dynamics. Since when does a CEO of a company Microsoft's size have time to run an operational division at the same time? I'd either expect a replacement to come in pretty soon, or for the next version of the OS to be even more of an uncoordinated disaster than the current one.

Supposedly, Microsoft showed Vista under another name to a group of die-hard XP users who were excited when they actually saw it and weren't just reading negative things. Why do I think that the machines running the OS were heftily outfitted? It's going to take a lot more than PR to get that memory-sucking, CPU cycle-hogging manatee to clear the important hurdle: Running applications fast enough that people don't head for coffee every time they click the mouse.

[Windows unit business chief Bill Veghte] is convinced, like others at Microsoft, that despite early technical challenges, Vista's problems are primarily ones of perception.
Sure, but the question is whether the perception is really inaccurate, or a distillation of user experience in the real world? Or, as Ballmer put it at one point in his memo to the employees:
In the competition between PCs and Macs, we outsell Apple 30-to-1. But there is no doubt that Apple is thriving. Why? Because they are good at providing an experience that is narrow but complete, while our commitment to choice often comes with some compromises to the end-to-end experience.
Uh, sure, that's one way to phrase it.

I would agree with the view that Johnson's arrival at Juniper means that the company is ready to head in a new direction and possibly try to challenge Cisco. The question is whether the Juniper really wants to change, or is just another company that wants to think that it does.

Pole vaulter image via Flickr user Gio JL, CC 2.0

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.