Former Exec: Microsoft Should Spin Off Windows and Office

Posted on January 17, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Office, Windows, Windows 11 with 28 Comments

A former Microsoft executive who figured prominently in the software giant’s Internet push of the 1990s has a crazy new idea for the company: it should spin off Windows and Office.

I know, it will never happen. But it’s a fascinating idea to consider in an age in which Microsoft seems a bit too overly focused on the cloud and not focused enough on making Windows, in particular, as good as it can be.

“The right thing probably is to bet the future on the cloud,” former Microsoft executive Ben Slivka told CNBC in an interview. Microsoft, he said, should spin off its Windows and Office franchises to “boost its growing cloud-computing business.”

For those unfamiliar, Slivka started and led Microsoft’s Internet Explorer efforts through the release of IE 3.0, and he penned an internal memo, The Web is the Next Platform, on December 12, 1995, in which he argued that the web would evolve into a full-featured computing platform that would one day surpass Windows. His email messages to other Microsoft executives during this time featured prominently in Microsoft’s antitrust troubles of that era.

Recommending that Microsoft spin-off Windows and Office is, of course, provocative, and a bald-faced attempt at getting headlines. And it will never happen for a variety of reasons: both franchises generate several billion dollars in profits and revenues every single quarter, for example, and the fate of Office is today tied very much to Microsoft’s cloud efforts.

But I think it’s also worth pointing out that Microsoft’s successes with enterprises and other businesses is very much related to its decades-long habit of supporting the legacy technologies on which they rely; dropping Windows would send a contrary message to the companies that are now themselves transitioning to Microsoft’s cloud-based solutions. And there are still synergies between Microsoft’s legacy and cloud solutions.

Still. For those, like me, who constantly doubt Microsoft’s devotion to Windows and its ability to keep this product modern and relevant, the spinoff idea is an enticing fantasy. Surely a company devoted only to Windows would be a better steward of the product than a company with its head in the clouds. And today, even Xbox has more in common with Microsoft’s cloud efforts than does Windows, and thus makes more sense as a part of the broader portfolio. Windows is, in many ways, an outlier, the one major Microsoft business that doesn’t really fit with Microsoft’s cloud focus.

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Comments (28)

28 responses to “Former Exec: Microsoft Should Spin Off Windows and Office”

  1. bschnatt

    It's probably safe to say that no single software application (if you can call Windows an "application") has been used to develop and launch creativity and innovation more than Windows has. You would think they would take a bit more pride in it...

    • bluvg

      "You would think they would take a bit more pride in it"

      Yeah, like bothering with even basic QC. Oh, that's right, they fired the team. I'd love to hear any cogent explanation how the Hyper-V (this was soooo basic to QC, seriously), ReFS, and DC bugs would have made it past even the most modestly competent QC team.

      Their feet need to be held to the fire on this one.

      • Donte

        They patched that today. It is out of band, separate downloads, but they did patch the patch. I will wait until next month to patch when its all included.

        • bluvg

          That's great, but it should never, ever have made it out the door in the state it was in. These weren't edge cases, these were the main use cases. Seriously... VMs not starting for Hyper-V? That's the whole point of Hyper-V. Even basic automated testing would have picked it up.

          January's update put a big spotlight on the state of Microsoft's testing, and it's not pretty.

  2. Stabitha.Christie

    It's an interesting thought experiment but it seems like MS could move Office and Windows to a wholly owned subsidiary which would address his issues and allow MS to keep the profit. That said, while MS has divisions I doubt detangling Windows and Office from the company would be an easy task at all.

  3. mikegalos

    And this is why Ben isn't CEO and Satya is.

    • Greg Green

      Nadella, the guy who can’t get Windows right, and doesn’t even seem to care.

      • locust_infested_orchard_inc.

        Nadella used to get lambasted, often being derogatorily referred to as "Nutella", etc, and your contribution to this matter is to opine Nadella doesn't care about Windows. Nadella knows full well that Windows was once it's bread and butter.

        With Microsoft's stock price soaring under his tenureship, and having a net worth larger than $2 trillion, no one now in a sane state of mind talks ill of Nadella.

        I suggest you appreciate Nadella's excellent leadership, and perhaps look inwards to yourself as to why you believe Windows is not quite right.

  4. cloxter

    If anything, Azure should be spun out, and met with M$'s complexity of licensing and the fees that come with it, just like everybody else...

  5. solomonrex

    Ridiculous idea. But it does give us an opportunity to point out that Office 365, Surface and Windows On ARM are all very old efforts now that are somehow not yet mainstream. There are files that won’t work with Office 365, and most offices still rely on locally installed Office, with all its quirks, outdated features and issues. MS hasn’t had a successful major transition since the 95 code base was replaced with NT. That was 20 years ago. Why out the cloud guy in charge if it’s more of the same? Like Intel, I see MS milking these aging franchises as ultimately making them sitting ducks. The Innovators dilemma, really.

  6. alsorun

    one additional point: Microsoft would be totally at the mercy of Apple and Google without its own client operation system. Just think about the difficulty Microsft had in trying to get Xbox cloud to work on I phones and the profit it had to give to Apple and google in the office app.

  7. alsorun

    This idea is stupid beyond comparison. First, the idea that Windows will survive better by being an independent company is pure fantasy. Windows will simply die if abandoned by Microsoft. Second, Microsft's cloud business needs Windows as part of its ecosystem. Third, with PC sales so healthy and Windows making so much money, why should Microsoft dump it?

    I believe that there is strong synergy between Windows and Xbox and between Windows and the cloud business.

    Will somebody advise Apple to spin off Mac to focus on i-phone?

    • Greg Green

      Apple pays far more attention to MacOS, and it shows, than MS does to Windows. Apple even designed its own chips for its OS. MS has effectively abandoned Windows as a priory, giving it to second rate managers and coders that couldn’t even figure out what cpus to run it on. And Nadella didn’t seem to care at all about the reversed and confusing messages or the design mashup that continue to plague Windows design.

  8. mike2thel73

    He needs to join ballmer, sinofsky, gates and whoever else from old Microsoft and get together & have Microsoft anonymous meetings instead of being in the news with dumb headlines.

    The day Microsoft either ends support for windows, sells the division, or spins it off is the day windows will die

  9. hellcatm

    Couldn't they just spin-off business and consumer? Then they could have business Windows, cloud, and office, and then separately they could have consumer Windows, cloud, office, and gaming? This way they could continue Windows 10X (Or 11X) and dump a lot of the legacy stuff yet keep it on the business Windows 11. Most consumers just want an light OS that can play games, go online and play media, by spinning off business and consumer we can have that.

  10. bdollerup

    I don't get why a headline generated by an interview with a clearly clueless exec is news.....

    • Greg Green

      Because Windows is in such a sad state and so severely ignored by MS management that Windows fans are clutching at anything to try to give Windows the respect it deserves.

    • mikegalos

      Even less than that. An Ex-exec.

  11. behindmyscreen

    Where's Judge Jackson when you need him.

  12. camelot5

    Ridiculous position and won't ever happen; you don't want it to happen.

    Microsoft has developed their ecosystem to be integrated. OS/Cloud/Office 365 is all designed and carefully planned to be integrated with their other products. This is what enterprises want in order to make support and business integrations better.

    Won't happen, ever.

  13. dougkinzinger

    I read the comment when it came out last week and thought to myself, "this guy just wants to be trending." It's clearly not a good idea.

  14. compuser

    Microsoft should break into three separate, totally independent, diviisions: Hardware, Software, and Storage. Each with it's own development and marketing teams, and each with separate consumer and enterprise teams.

    • bkkcanuck

      Agreed. But my divisions would be different. I would make Windows (and bundled apps) and Hardware Reference Platforms as one division (reference platforms would be responsible for working with hardware suppliers and pushing required compliance standards that official hardware vendors have to meet). I would make Cloud Computing and Platforms a second division. I would have Applications a 3rd division. I would also setup a 4th division that is primarily a VC (both internal and external) to fund startups that are complimentary to Microsoft businesses - with a clause in the contracts that Microsoft would have the first option to fully acquire them at market price [plus royalties/bonuses on future growth] if the venture is successful and is of interest to Microsoft going forward (basically separate business development that are private businesses and can be run more entrepreneurial during the development). [basically try to create a win-win scenario for entrepreneurs who need funding and and potentially could be provide future growth]. Microsoft Corp would become a holding company and each of the divisions would have General Management and a fair amount of independence -- as long as they met or exceeded expectations. (there are probably areas that may require another division or are fuzzy in nature).

  15. christianwilson

    Services like Microsoft Loop are a great example of why Microsoft would want to keep Office in house. Office apps are starting to look more like frontends to Azure productivity services as time goes on.

    Windows is interesting. I can't picture a world where Windows isn't developed by Microsoft but, unlike Office, I don't see it evolving so much as simply being maintained. It gets feature updates and visual overhauls. It is still used on over a billion devices and will be for the the foreseeable future. I lack the vision to see a radically different Windows, though. The OS doesn't matter as much anymore as long as it can run the software and services people need. What more does Windows need to do for the devices it runs on?

  16. pungkuss

    That exec is an idiot! When deciding which cloud to migrate to, the overwhelming benefit of using Azure is that is works with the other legacy Microsoft software. Plus Microsoft will make sure that Office cost more if being used on another vendor's cloud. Its the lock-in that allowed them to become challengers to AWS so quickly.

  17. dftf

    Where Windows is concerned, they at-least took a good-decision in Windows 11 in ditching the 32-bit kernel versions. They need to focus on making the ARM64 edition as-good-as possible, performance-wise, and consider allowing people to build their own ARM-based PCs.

    Where Office is concered though, well -- how much more can they really add, feature-wise? And their attention clearly only goes into the "main five": Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint and Word. All the others are Windows-only. Project and Visio on rare occassions see feature-updates; I don't ever come into-contact with Access, so couldn't comment much there. Though Publisher should just be released as a free-download thesedays -- they've clearly no-interest in ever doing anything with it. No major new features have been added since the 2010 release, and it's still stuck with only the original binary file-format; there's never been a "PUBX" updated format.

    • MikeCerm

      Performance-wise, the ARM64 edition is as about as good as it can be. The issue is that there's no high-performance ARM chips to run it on right now. There's really no point in "allowing people to build their own ARM-based PCs" when the only hardware that's available to run it on is barely faster than the cheapest Intel Jasper Lake chips. Right now, you can get an N4500 mini PC with 8GB, a 256GB SSD, and Windows pre-installed, for $200. Unless you're looking at a Mac, the best ARM-based PC you can buy right now is the $220 ECS LIVA Mini thing on Microsoft's website. It sucks, but it's still better than anything you could build yourself. By the time you spec out a Raspberry Pi 4 8GB with a case, PSU, and storage, you're basically looking at something that costs about the same for about 50% of the performance.

  18. red.radar

    I don’t see why you would spin it off. It’s easy money. It’s a mature platform that needs minimal maintenance and is incredibly entrenched. Why give that away?

    sure if it was weighing the business down with overhead but it’s a software product. How much overhead is there ? They already outsourced QC to the enterprise customer base through the insider program.

    sounds like a good thing to say if your being a Monday morning CEO on YouTube… but I am not certain it makes any sense at all..