Microsoft departures shake up entertainment group

Robbie Bach and J Allard, leaders in Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, will leave the company

Two longtime Microsoft Entertainment and Devices division executives are leaving the company in a move that will give CEO Steve Ballmer more control over the group.

Robbie Bach, president of the Entertainment and Devices division, will retire later this year after 22 years at Microsoft. He won't be replaced. Instead, the heads of the mobile communications business and the interactive entertainment business -- both parts of the division -- will report directly to Ballmer starting July 1. The division is responsible for Microsoft consumer products including Windows Phone 7, Xbox, Zune and Project Natal, the company's newest gaming offering.

The timing of such a high-level departure is unusual, indicating that leaders may not have been happy with the division's performance, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

"I would have thought that if Microsoft was going to shake up the division, it would have at least given the current product lineup a chance to succeed or fail," he said. Windows Phone 7 and the Kin phones have only just launched and Natal is slated to come out later this year.

"It's possible that senior leadership was not happy with some of the performance in that area, particularly mobile," he said.

While Windows Phone 7 is a step in the right direction, the Windows Mobile platform has been steadily losing market share even as the rest of the smartphone industry booms. Kin has not been enthusiastically received.

In addition, Microsoft's mobile efforts aren't keeping pace with other new trends. "HP's purchase of Palm sort of signals a shift in the market," Rosoff noted. That deal was an indication that HP would rather buy a mobile OS and repurpose it for a slate computer rather than use Windows, he said. Also, Android is being fit onto slate computers. As a result, Microsoft may now want to leverage its mobile platform for slate computers before those mobile OSes cut into Windows sales, he said.

"A shake-up at the top usually suggests that all is not well at the business," he said.

Still, he said it's possible that Bach wanted to leave and decided to do so now before becoming involved with the next generation of product development.

In a statement, Bach said that he plans to spend more time with his family and his nonprofit work with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Ballmer, in a statement, called Bach a close personal friend and said he was sad to see him go.

Bach will work with Ballmer and other leaders to ensure a smooth transition and is planning to leave the company in the fall, late in the third quarter or early in the fourth.

It's not unusual at Microsoft for senior leaders to leave and not immediately be replaced, leaving a group to report to Ballmer directly, Rosoff said. However, it's a sign that Ballmer is increasingly focused on improving the mobile business. For the past few years Ballmer has concentrated on the company's search and online businesses, but now that they appear to be headed in the right direction, he seems to be turning his attention to improving on mobile, he said.

Microsoft also said that J Allard, senior vice president of design and development for the Entertainment and Devices division, will leave the company. He has been at Microsoft for 19 years.

However, Allard plans to take an official role as a strategic adviser for Ballmer, the company said. Sometimes when that happens at Microsoft, the executive ends up back on staff in a different position, said Rosoff.

Microsoft also announced a couple other organizational changes. Antoine Leblond, senior vice president of the Office Productivity Applications group, will become senior vice president of the Windows Services team. Kurt DelBene, senior vice president in the Office Business Productivity group, will take on all of the engineering responsibilities for the Office business.

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Nancy Gohring

IDG News Service
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