Last Xbox Creator Leaves Microsoft (and Why That’s Depressing)

Entertainment & Devices is the division of Microsoft that makes the cool shit. Xbox, Zune, Windows Phone. Courier. J. Allard was its figurehead for years. He left. And now Otto Berkes, the last original Xbox founder, is gone too.

As the Seattle Times reports, Berkes didn't just help create the Xbox, along with Ted Hase and Ed Fries. Like Allard, he was a visionary. Remember the all-too-ahead-of-their-time UMPCs? His. They were clunky and awkward, hampered by Microsoft management's institutional insistence to shove ill-suited versions of Windows on everything, but it's hard to deny devices like the OQO were warped little glimpses of the near-future of small computers. Berkes worked on Courier with Allard, too. So even as an isolated event, it's a significant loss for Microsoft.

If you consider his departure in the context of things like Courier being unceremoniously cancelled, J. Allard leaving and the obliteration of Pioneer Studios—the skunkworks unit that developed Courier, parts of the Xbox, Zune and Windows Phone—it seems a little more depressing. True, a lot of the Pioneer Studios staff is sticking around at Microsoft, parts of their projects flowing into the development stream of other potential future products. It's being integrated, you could say. But can they do the same kind of groundbreaking work when they're broken down to being cogs in the giant machine that is Microsoft? Can they be, well, pioneers?

The impact of Berkes' departure and Pioneer Studios' shuttering may be more symbolic than practical (there are still totally brilliant and creative people at Microsoft), but it's symbolism that's not without potency at a time when the perception of Microsoft is largely that it doesn't innovate or create new things, or at least ones that see the light of day. (Windows Phone 7 Live Messenger for Skype Live jokes, anyone?) Like I was telling Andy Lees, who heads up Windows Phone, earlier today, it shouldn't be a surprise when Microsoft creates an amazing product. But it often is. Pioneer and Berkes and Allard were symbols of a part of Microsoft where creating wonderful things, things that people love, aren't happy surprises or coincidences. It's just what they do. [Seattle Times]

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