Microsoft has lost another senior executive, and a number of people have asked me if this is good or bad for Microsoft. I’ll render judgment at the end of this piece.
I never interacted with Don Mattrick though no doubt we were in a few meetings together. Most of my interactions with Xbox leadership were with the old timers who created the original Xbox and Xbox 360 and later those who ran E&D. So I’m not writing from personal experience here, but rather from observation.
Mattrick joined Microsoft in mid-2007 with the Xbox 360 already in-market. He was a game guy, not a game console or PC hardware guy, and apparently Microsoft wanted to bring more game industry expertise into E&D leadership. With the departure of Robbie Bach and J Allard, as well as other early Xbox leaders, Mattrick became the clear head honcho for Entertainment.
It’s difficult to argue with Mattrick’s record at Microsoft, the recent Xbox One DRM fiasco aside. The Xbox and Xbox Live business grew dramatically. The Kinect was introduced to record-setting success. And moreover, the day one strategy of making the Xbox the center of the overall living room entertainment experience (aka, the third screen) went from lip service to reality. Moreover, Mattrick brought a lot of senior talent from other parts of Microsoft into IEB over the last three years. Most notably Dave Cutler, but overall there is a lot of talent in that organization.
Of course the interesting thing about all the Microsoft old-timers who have joined IEB in the last three or so years is that they are not gaming guys. They are computer systems software people. Many of those who built Windows, .NET, Live, and other of Microsoft’s traditional platforms and services now reside in IEB. And you start to see the result in the Xbox One. It is a general purpose home entertainment platform, with specialized support for gaming.
So Mattrick the game guy’s legacy at Microsoft will be that he successfully moved the Xbox business from a game console that could do some other home entertainment to a home entertainment device that also does gaming. See the irony? I’m guessing it is exactly that irony that lead to Mattrick joining Zynga. At Microsoft, ”Games and Game Consoles” is no longer a top-level job. So if you are a game guy, and want to stay a game guy, you either need to take a smaller job or look elsewhere. And that is at least part of what I suspect happened here.
One of the rumors I saw about Microsoft’s upcoming reorg had Mattrick running a broader Devices organization. That had me scratching my head a bit because it is so far from the theme of his overall career. Sure, thanks to the Xbox he has more experience running a systems hardware business than any other senior Microsoft executive. But game consoles are a specialized business, and Mattrick has no experience in the broader PC, server, or other device areas that Microsoft would want to venture into. Not even on the software side. He’s a Game Guy. Microsoft might have been willing to give him a broader role, but that doesn’t mean it was an ideal fit from either the company or Mattrick’s perspective.
So why exactly did Mattrick leave for Zynga? I don’t really know, other than that obviously he found the opportunity to be CEO of a game company more interesting than whatever future he saw for himself at Microsoft. Kara Swisher, who broke the story of Don’s departure, has reported that Don’s departure has nothing to do with Microsoft’s upcoming reorg and I have no reason to question her insight. And other reports have him talking to Zynga for months. But reorg or not, Mattrick was weighing his future opportunity at Microsoft against a return to his roots and his roots won.
So is Mattrick’s departure good or bad for Microsoft? I’m going to give it a Neutral. With Steve Ballmer apparently about to reorganize the entire company Mattrick’s departure may be the least disruptive change that hits the Interactive Entertainment Business in coming weeks. And with the Xbox One firmly in the camp of being a broad Home Entertainment platform, losing the “game guy” is not as painful as it would have been just a few years ago.