It’s tough at the top

Being recognised as a genius in your field is one thing, but creativity and innovation will only get you so far. To stay at the top you need the support of your team. Lose that, and your days are numbered no matter who you are.

This was the hard lesson learned by Scott Forstall, one of the original architects of the Mac OS X operating system and head of the team responsible for the software platform at the heart of the iconic iPhone device last month.

Out of the blue, Californian vendor Apple announced an executive reshuffle, which will see the departure of Forstall early next year and his status trimmed back to that of an advisor to CEO Tim Cook in the interim. The company did not expand on his reasons for leaving, but rumours suggest personality clashes at the top, as well as the fallout from the Maps debacle and ongoing issues with Siri.

But it wasn’t only Forstall that was for the chop. John Browett is also leaving after only five months as head of retail. A search for a replacement is underway, but in the interim the retail team will report directly to Cook. Again, the rumour-mongers suggest that Browett made some serious mistakes in his short tenure which didn’t do him any favours.

In other movements, famed designer, Jony Ive, who was responsible for everything from the iMac to the iPhone and iPad design is now going to “provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design.” Meanwhile, Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, will take on the additional responsibility of Siri and Maps, placing all online services in one group along with iTunes, the App Store, the iBookstore and iCloud.

And Craig Federighi, senior vice president of Software Engineering, will lead both iOS and OS X development. Bob Mansfield, senior vice president of Technologies, will lead a new group, which combines all of Apple’s wireless teams across the company in one organisation and will also include the semiconductor team.

This all smacks of some serious tension at the top of the company’s management tree and leaves Apple without a dedicated veteran software lead or a retail chief in the run up to the holiday season. But it’s not the only company in this situation.

US software giant Microsoft recently announced the immediate departure of Steven Sinofsky, head of its flagship Windows and Windows Live operations. The move came just a few weeks after the launch of the company’s next generation software platform, Windows 8, which spans both desktop and mobile devices.

Microsoft did not give any reason for Sinofsky’s departure, which again is being attributed to personal differences in the management layer. But the move does raise questions over the future direction of Microsoft’s platform strategy and Sinofsky’s departure couldn’t have come at a worse time. After all, Windows 8 was billed as more than a simple product upgrade when it was launched, with Microsoft positioning it as a multi-device strategy that would embrace modern diversity in devices used to access services and content.

With Sinosfky gone, Julie Larson-Green will be promoted to lead all Windows software and hardware engineering while Tami Reller, who retains her roles as chief financial officer and chief marketing officer, will also assume responsibility for the business of Windows. Both executives will report directly to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Since 1993, Larson-Green has worked on and led some of the most well known products for Microsoft, including the user experiences for early versions of Internet Explorer, and helped drive the thinking behind the latest iteration Microsoft Office. For Windows 7 and Windows 8 she was responsible for program management, user interface design and research, as well as development of all international releases.

Reller began her career in technology at Great Plains Software in 1984 and was the company’s chief financial officer at the time it was acquired by Microsoft in 2001.

So with two of the bigger players in the handset ecosystem tied up with internal issues, is there opportunity for the grass roots Linux movement to break through? A couple of players think so.

Former Nokia executives in Finland, disgruntled at the abandonment of MeeGo, set up their own mobile OS start up, Jolla Mobile, in the summer. A couple of weeks ago the firm offered the world a first look at Sailfish OS.

Moreover, in a show of support for domestic innovation, Finland’s third largest operator DNA said that it will distribute handsets using the OS upon its commercial launch.

In a similar vein, Spanish operator group Telefónica is one firm that has been vocal about its attempts to break free from the dominance exerted by proprietary players by putting its support behind open source software developer Mozilla’s Firefox operating system. Following Telefónica’s lead, operators Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia and Telenor have now signed up to back the open Firefox OS as an option for delivering cheaper smartphones.

Mozilla recently released a prototype version of its lightweight mobile operating system Firefox OS. The OS is available as a prototype module, which developers can run on Windows, Mac and Linux computers.

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