Aug 10

Three men and a baby

Dell, Ballmer, Hurd and Torch — doing their best to lower the bar

After a solid month of Apple and Steve jobs being pummeled by the media over Antennagate, it’s refreshing to see other CEOs and companies step forward to take their beatings. Let’s thank them all for their creativity. While they’ve chosen different routes, each gives new meaning to the word “leadership”:

Michael Dell, CEO, Dell
Here’s a guy who made a fortune by breaking the rules in the computer business. Now he’s graduated to breaking S.E.C. rules for financial reporting. Not only does his company get fined $100 million, he personally gets zapped with a $4 million fine for participating in a scheme to mislead Wall Street. This isn’t exactly the inspirational behavior employees (or shareholders, customers and analysts) like to see in a CEO. While Michael fiddles, Dell burns. The Dell brand is fading, as is the value of its stock. But it’s okay. Dell’s board has just reaffirmed its “unanimous support for Michael’s continued leadership, transparent accounting, integrity in financial reporting…” It’s enough to make me believe in alternate universes.

Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft
Steve has done nothing in the last couple of weeks to deserve louder calls for his ouster — but then doing nothing has become his specialty. Under Steve’s leadership, shareholders have received a steady diet of embarrassing delays, often followed by even more embarrassing products. There was the revolutionary Courier tablet, which was in development forever and then killed before release. And the concept-challenged Kin phone that was killed just 60 days after release. Let’s not forget the grand-daddy of them all, the long-delayed and ill-received travesty called Vista. Most damning though, is that in the world’s most important market — mobile technology — Microsoft is but a whisper while Apple and Google have become the superpowers. (Oh, right, I forgot. Windows Phone 7 is coming.) Is there any measure by which Ballmer deserves to keep his job? With the resources available to Microsoft, you have to wonder what the company might be if it had a real visionary at the top.

Mark Hurd, ex-CEO, HP
Justice is harsh, isn’t it. The one guy who was actually doing a good job for his shareholders was sitting on top of the world one day and sent packing the next. The official story is that after marketing contractor Jodie Fisher filed a sexual harassment suit against HP for Hurd’s behavior, an internal investigation revealed discrepancies in his expense reports and payments to Fisher for work she didn’t do. Personally, I love the idea that the CEO of HP was sitting up at night fiddling with his expense reports. Whatever, there’s a lot about this story that just doesn’t add up. Henry Blodget has an interesting take on it this morning in SFGate. All I know is that you or I don’t get severance when we resign from our jobs or when we get fired for cause. Mark got a nice little $40 million severance package for accepting exile.

BlackBerry Torch, Newborn, RIM
Ain’t it cute? Say hi to the new Torch. Hard to remember the last time a non-Apple product got knocked about like this one has been. That RIM released this phone is surprising, given the company’s heritage. It’s not like they’re a newcomer to smartphones — they were literally the first guy in the pool. They’ve had plenty of time to analyze the success of Apple and Google. With all this skill and knowledge, they’ve created a new version of their software and launched it with the “all-new” BlackBerry Torch. Torch might appeal to the BlackBerry crowd but won’t be even remotely tempting to iPhone and Android customers. It has an underpowered processor, a cramped lo-res screen, and it’s thick and heavy. The words “clunky” and “cluttered” seem to pop up often in the reviews. It’s way too early to start writing BlackBerry’s epitaph, but maybe not too early to start checking out gravestone prices, just in case. The latest Nielsen survey says that only 42% of BlackBerry owners plan on buying another BlackBerry — compared to the 89% percent of iPhone owners and 71% of Android owners who plan to remain loyal.

Given the temptations and humiliations people have suffered at the top, you might want to think twice before you go applying for Hurd’s job…

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  • Synthmeister

    Great article. although I believe that the Courier project you mentioned was never a real project connected to any kind of real world OS, technology, engineering or–most important–real world price tag. It was purely a mock-up of a “concept vehicle” like the Apple Knowledge Navigator in the late 80s. Except Apple admitted that the KN was purely conceptual while MS acted like Courier was a top secret project that coincidentally “leaked” just before the iPad was introduced. The Courier never got beyond concept art/videos.

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  • qka

    Henry Blodget – now there’s a guy who’s moral compass is aligned with Michael Dell’s. Both are proven to point the wrong way.

  • Poru

    Nice article, but to say that the BB Torch is underpowered makes little sense. Most people don’t really care how fast their phone is (in terms of mhz’s), as long as it runs programs and the OS quickly. To say that the Torch is underpowered because it only has a 624mhz processor compared to the iPhone’s 1ghz (which I believe may be under-clocked) is just silly and harkens back to the days of Apple’s PPC low mhz vs PC’s Pentiums with high mhz.
    It’s all relative…
    I love Apple and love love the iPad, but for me, BB’s work amazingly for me with BIS etc…

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