With OpenAI in chaos, Sam Altman joins Microsoft

Microsoft has hired Altman and other OpenAI colleagues. A majority of OpenAI employees have threatened to quit if the board won't resign.

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Sam Altman, ousted on Nov. 17, won’t return to OpenAI as its CEO. That’s because he has joined Microsoft, announced Satya Nadella, Microsoft chairman and CEO.

  • Except, in a possible plot twist, Altman to Microsoft still may not be a done deal. Altman could be trying to return as OpenAI CEO, tech rag the Verge reported.

New AI team. Altman, OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman and more “colleagues” are joining Microsoft, Nadella posted on X:

  • “We’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success.”

Microsoft remains committed to OpenAI. Microsoft has invested more than $10 billion in OpenAI, which powers Microsoft Copilot (formerly Bing Chat) and numerous other Microsoft products. Despite hiring Altman, Brockman and others, OpenAI and Microsoft’s partnership will continue on, Nadella wrote:

  • “We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite, and in continuing to support our customers and partners.”

Microsoft wins one. Why is this a phenomenal outcome for Microsoft? Stratechery analyst Ben Thompson wrote:

  • “The company already has a perpetual license to all OpenAI IP (short of artificial general intelligence), including source code and model weights; the question was whether it would have the talent to exploit that IP if OpenAI suffered the sort of talent drain that was threatened upon Altman and Brockman’s removal. Indeed they will, as a good portion of that talent seems likely to flow to Microsoft; you can make the case that Microsoft just acquired OpenAI for $0 and zero risk of an antitrust lawsuit.”

Why we care. ChatGPT has been the go-to generative AI tool for search marketers since it launched Nov. 30. Will ChatGPT continue to be a functional tool with most of OpenAI’s employees in full revolt and ready to abandon the company? Microsoft’s fate is also very much tied to OpenAI technology.

Another new interim CEO. Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, was named the interim CEO on Nov. 17. Two days later, Emmett Shear was named OpenAI CEO.

  • Shear was announced following failed negotiations to bring Altman back as CEO. Altman reportedly refused to agree to whatever proposed terms would result in his reinstatement.

Will Shear last long as CEO? It’s entirely possible Shear may not, considering some of his “opinionated” X posts, which include criticism of Microsoft, being in favor of slowing down AI development, and more. He also ignored abuse happening on Twitch, as Screenrant reported.

Future Microsoft employees? Murati, among many other current and former employees, took to X with a unified message:

  • “OpenAI is nothing without its people.”

Also, 747 (per Ars Technica) of OpenAI’s 770 employees signed a letter threatening to quit and potentially join Microsoft if the board doesn’t resign. From the letter:

  • “The process through which you terminated Sam Altman and removed Greg Brockman from the board has jeopardized all of this work and undermined our mission and company. Your conduct has made it clear you did not have the competence to oversee OpenAI.”
  • “Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join.”

Board stands by its decision. In a Nov. 19 memo signed by the four board directors (Adam D’Angelo, Helen Toner, Ilya Sutskever, Tasha McCauley), the board wrote:

  • “The board firmly stands by its decision as the only path to advance and defend the mission of OpenAI.”
  • “Put simply, Sam’s behavior and lack of transparency in his interactions with the board undermined the board’s ability to effectively supervise the company in the manner it was mandated to do.”

Go deeper into the chaos. The Atlantic’s Inside the Chaos at OpenAI is a good read explaining what led to this tumultuous weekend, including ideological rifts that developed following the commercial success of ChatGPT.

About the author

Danny Goodwin
Danny Goodwin has been Managing Editor of Search Engine Land & Search Marketing Expo - SMX since 2022. He joined Search Engine Land in 2022 as Senior Editor. In addition to reporting on the latest search marketing news, he manages Search Engine Land’s SME (Subject Matter Expert) program. He also helps program U.S. SMX events.

Goodwin has been editing and writing about the latest developments and trends in search and digital marketing since 2007. He previously was Executive Editor of Search Engine Journal (from 2017 to 2022), managing editor of Momentology (from 2014-2016) and editor of Search Engine Watch (from 2007 to 2014). He has spoken at many major search conferences and virtual events, and has been sourced for his expertise by a wide range of publications and podcasts.

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