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Wednesday, June 21, 2006 - Page updated at 11:47 AM

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Microsoft vague on departure of key Windows Live leader

Seattle Times technology reporter

A top Microsoft executive responsible for marketing Windows Live — a major initiative the company spotlighted this week — has left under unusual circumstances.

Microsoft confirmed Martin Taylor, named in March to be corporate vice president of Windows Live and MSN marketing, is gone after a 13-year career that included high-profile roles close to Chief Executive Steve Ballmer.

"We've made the difficult decision to part ways with Martin, but we don't comment on personnel matters," Microsoft said in a statement Tuesday.

Taylor had been scheduled to give interviews Monday about the release of Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's first big offering in a suite of about 20 consumer-focused products that will compete head-to-head with the likes of Google, Yahoo! and other big names on the Internet.

The company's public-relations handlers canceled Taylor's interviews, saying he was bumped from a flight out of Dallas on Sunday night and was stuck there on standby Monday. Taylor was featured in a written question-and-answer session the company provided to reporters about Windows Live.

"This is not a normal type of exit," said Rob Horwitz, CEO of analysis firm Directions on Microsoft. "... [This] is pretty odd to have someone center stage in press releases and stuff one day and removed from the Web site the next day."

E-mails sent to Taylor's Microsoft address bounced back Tuesday, and he could not be reached by phone.

Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research, characterized Taylor's departure as "sudden and unexpected." Typically, Microsoft's announcements of executive departures are more amicable and give the reasons for leaving, he said.

"The question that everyone will be asking over the next couple of days is, 'Why did he leave?' " Wilcox said.

Microsoft spokespeople would not elaborate.

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Laura DiDio, analyst with the Yankee Group, said Taylor was "one of the brightest up-and-coming executives that I had dealt with there in a long, long time."

Wilcox said Taylor "performed magic" in an earlier job at Microsoft, confronting the threat posed by Linux and other open-source software. He led a team of strategists working on the issue.

Ballmer was impressed by Taylor, 36, early on and gave him the high-profile Linux assignment.

Taylor faced another major challenge in the role he assumed three months ago as part of a substantial shake-up of the division that includes Windows and Windows Live.

"He would have had important responsibilities for marketing some of the new Windows Live Services, and also competitively dealing with Google, again from a marketing perspective," Wilcox said.

Taylor's exit comes a month after his boss, David Cole, head of the online business group, began a yearlong leave of absence. Cole was replaced by Steve Berkowitz, former president of search company Ask.com.

Wilcox said the turnover "could cause some disruption" to the rollout of Windows Live.

Marketing is to accelerate this summer and fall as Microsoft launches more services, but the big Windows Live sales push will probably occur in January, when the new Windows Vista operating system is set for release to consumers.

"On the other hand, anyone can be replaced," Wilcox said. "... [It] isn't like Microsoft has a shortage of talent."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

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