Silverberg walks away from Microsoft

Brad Silverberg, a highly regarded executive who has taken a leave of absence since the summer of 1997, is not returning to the company, according to knowledgeable sources.

Silverberg did not respond to an e-mail request for comment and a Microsoft spokesman said the company did not discuss unannounced personnel moves. But sources said the Silverberg era was all but over. "There's still a 2 percent chance he'll come back, but I'd be shocked," said one source.

Barring a last-minute reversal, the decision would be a blow to Microsoft, which was especially keen on bringing Silverberg back to help sharpen the company's Internet focus. The software maker is expected to soon announce a broad restructuring and wanted Silverberg to head up a consumer unit that would embrace the responsibilities of the Interactive Media Group. "Brad's been doing this a stuff a long time. If they offered him something perhaps a little more mainstream, perhaps he'd go for it," said Dataquest analyst, Chris LeTocq. "IMG is currently a hot potato and Brad knows better."

Even while Microsoft's sales and earnings have soared, the performance of IMG has been spotty, LeTocq noted. "It would be both a challenge and an opportunity," he said, adding "How do you motivate a guy who has everything?"

It wouldn't be the first time Microsoft has looked to Silverberg for a needed fillip. The bearded, lanky executive has played a central role in the company's growth since joining Microsoft from Borland in 1990. As senior vice president of the company's Personal Systems Division, Silverberg shepherded the Windows 95 project to completion and was named PC Magazine's person of the year for 1995. Silverberg added an even bigger notch to his belt when he subsequently spearheaded the company's frantic race to catch up with Netscape Communications. Under his direction as head of the Internet Platform and Tools Group, Microsoft recovered from a late start on the World Wide Web to ultimately trump its chief rival.

But Silverberg, who was a proponent of putting the Internet Explorer browser wherever Microsoft could -- including computers that ran operating systems other than Windows -- lost that battle to vice president Jim Allchin, who argued that the company's efforts need to revolve around its cash cow operating system.

By mid-1997, Silverberg decided to take a break from the grind and received permission from Bill Gates to take a couple of months off for a cross-country bicycle trip. The sabbatical ended, but Silverberg never returned. Although he retained an office on the Redmond campus, Silverberg has not been involved in day-to-day affairs since then. "It'd be great if Brad came back. I still hope he does but I think he's enjoying life too much," said a source close to Silverberg. "It's our loss."