Jun 10

Dancing with Steve Ballmer

Confession: I have a secret fascination with Steve Ballmer.

Certainly not because he’s any kind of visionary. I just find it fascinating to watch the charisma-challenged CEO perform his dance with words, putting a spin on things that are no longer very spinnable.

I thought I knew the man pretty well by now, but I did have a revelation watching this CNN Money interview. Ballmer will spin his little heart out — but he does some serious cogitation in an attempt to avoid the big fib. In fact, he resists the temptation even when the Microsoft-friendly interviewer lobs a softball to which he need only reply, “Yes.” You can see his brain working hard not to say the thing that will haunt him later.

Here are are some of my favorite moments from his exchange with interviewer Poppy Harlow (who has one of the greatest names in journalism).

Poppy: You are pretty confident about where you’re going in mobile. Can you win in mobile?
Ballmer: We can do very well in mobile.

[Geez. The lady just said you had confidence. Show some!]

Ballmer: The first step is to go from declining to growing. I think we’ll do a nice job of that.

[One moment please. I’m having an inspiration overload.]

Ballmer: We have a very well, kind of, received at least, by, uh, what we call the blogosphere [ah, so that was yours — catchy!], a very well received product in Windows Phone 7 which ships this year — WHOOSH! — and we’ll take off from there.

[Right. “Well received,” but unshipped, and with no firm date set. Nice job with the sound effect too. Even Steve Jobs doesn’t do this.]

Poppy: Looking at making the technology behind the phones, but not the phones themselves — that’s the right move, that’s the way to go?
Ballmer: Well that’s where we are [this brazen talk must end!], and it certainly has served us very well in the PC business, and we’re driving ahead in phones.

[When in doubt, cling to the PC model. “The people” love that.]

Poppy: What’s your hope for phones that use Microsoft technology?
Ballmer: We’ll give people choices … one of the advantages of the PC ecosystem — PC and now the phone — is to give people a range of choice.

Well, Steve, you know I’m not going to give up on you. But honestly, you need to change a couple of things. First, you should drop this bit about phones being just like PCs. If they were, Microsoft would be leading the charge and Apple would be insignificant. Second, it’s not nearly enough to stand for “offering choice.” Apple offered choice to an existing smartphone market. The League of Android gave people umpteen more choices. We still have BlackBerry and others. We’ve got choices out the wazoo.

If you’d like to show up at the party (three years late), you’ll need more than a tired slogan. Try making a phone people can get excited about.

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  • It’s fun to try to answer the questions in a positive way and then see how much Steve’s answer differed. For example:

    “What’s your hope for phones that use Microsoft technology?” How about something about tight integration between Windows 7 and Windows Mobile? Your phone as a natural extension of your PC? Always connected with your data, music, movies, pictures, and friends? That sounds pretty compelling to me.

    Steve’s answer about choices just doesn’t convey the same sense of possibility.