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Xbox One: Julie Larson-Green May Fit In Just Fine

Columnist Chris Morris examines what the new Xbox chief means for Microsoft as it launches its biggest product of the next 10 years

Gamers - and the games media - hate the unknown. They thrive in a biosphere where leaks pre-announce major moves and no one is all that surprised when it's made official.

That's what made Microsoft's decision to replace Don Mattrick with Julie Larson-Green so frustrating for some. She was, to many, an unknown. And that quickly led some to question her qualifications, which eventually led to prophecies of doom for the Xbox in some forums.

Larson-Green, they said, is not a gamer. She doesn't get the culture. Her appointment, they said, was yet another fumble by Microsoft in the walkup to the Xbox One.

Bunk.

"I don't know her," notes Wedbush's Michael Pachter. "She's a manager and she's obviously competent or they wouldn't have put her in the job. ... All this talk about 'She's not a gamer? I think that's sexist."

Granted, Larson-Green doesn't have the gaming chops of Don Mattrick, but then again, neither did Robbie Bach - Mattrick's predecessor and the person who established a lot of the policies that led to the division becoming profitable.

"How Larson-Green navigates the early days of the new system should give people a very good idea of what she plans to do with the division as a whole"

And while she does have a couple of marks on her recent resume that are controversial - the Surface tablet and the Metro interface of Windows 8 - Larson-Green has even more victories. A well-respected 19-year veteran of Microsoft, she was also the driving force behind Windows 7 and led UI design for Office XP, Office 2003 and Office 2007. And she's said to be passionate about user interface, a result of her first job as a customer service rep at Aldus, a maker of desktop publishing software, where she dealt with furious users on a daily basis.

Hmm... User interface as a priority? The ability to handle angry mobs? She may fit in just fine in the gaming world.

Still, analysts say they were expecting a familiar name to be put in charge of Xbox.

"I'm pretty surprised," says P.J. McNealy of Digital World Research. "I thought there were some good candidates on the senior leadership team. To go outside of that was unexpected. ... But if the rest of the leadership team remains intact - Phil Spencer, Marc Whitten - then she's in pretty good shape."

While Larson-Green is the public face of the Xbox, she's not the sole captain. Terry Myerson, who previously was in charge of the Windows Phone unit, will add engineering for operating systems - including the Xbox - to his duties.

That forced marriage is somewhat curious at first glance. Larson-Green is the UI expert, but the person running the Xbox's operating system is Myerson. Splitting the division between the two units is a peculiar move on Ballmer's part, given how critical the Xbox One is to Microsoft in the next decade.

The idea, of course, is that Ballmer wants Microsoft to work as a single company with a unified mission. That's an admirable goal, but it often gets sidetracked by reality.

Microsoft is fighting a lot of battles on a lot of different fronts - and a single strategy doesn't always work well for that. The plan to battle Apple for market share, for instance, isn't the same as how you try to lure PlayStation users.

In this case, though, it could make sense. The underlying kernel for the Xbox One operating system is Windows 8 - and it will be Myerson's job to ensure that developers who build games for that can easily transport them to other Microsoft platforms, including PCs, tablets and Windows Phones, after they've helped sell more Xbox units.

It will likely be a year or more before we see any sort of impact from the executive shakeup at Microsoft. The roadmap for big projects is already set and, in the case of the Xbox One, there has already been enough disruption.

But, in many ways, the console division is the canary in the coal mine for the company. Xbox One is Microsoft's biggest product launch of the last 10 years - and likely will be its biggest for the next 10.

The Xbox 360 has ruled the sales charts for nearly 30 months in North America, only slipping from the top spot last month as the 3DS surged. The Xbox One was already going to have a hard time maintaining that momentum, especially after the company's numerous missteps before and during E3.

How Larson-Green navigates the early days of the new system should give people a very good idea of what she plans to do with the division as a whole.

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Chris Morris avatar

Chris Morris

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Chris Morris has covered the video game industry since 1996, offering analysis of news and trends and breaking several major stories. He was the author of CNNMoney’s 'Game Over' and has also written for Yahoo!, Variety, CNBC.com, Forbes.com and other publications.

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