May 11

Ballmer: making the wrong kind of mistakes

Yes, you

I have a new theory about Steve Ballmer.

Maybe earlier in his life, or in a previous life, he did such wonderful things, he earned himself a guardian angel.

Really, how else does one explain how a man can remain employed through one planet-sized bungle to the next?

Many companies make mistakes in the pursuit of greatness. Apple makes some doozies.

But Microsoft, under Ballmer, consistently makes the kind of mistakes that can easily turn the company into the type of case study you don’t want to be: the “rise and fall” type.

I don’t pretend to understand the dynamics inside Microsoft. However, this is business. Very big business. No amount of loyalty, favoritism, appreciation or whatever can possibly rationalize the company’s poor showing since Ballmer assumed office.

How Microsoft, formerly the most valuable and profitable technology company on earth (“formerly,” thanks to Ballmer), with virtually limitless resources, could fall into its current state is almost impossible to comprehend.

After failing miserably with Vista, Ballmer has completely missed the two biggest technology revolutions in recent times: smartphones and tablets. And let’s not even talk about the $8.5 billion he just sunk into Skype.

The smartphone failure alone should have earned him his gold watch. It took Microsoft three years to come up with a viable alternative to iPhone. Even then, “viable” is probably being generous. Now, after Android, Microsoft must fight to be a distant third.

His public statements have become laughable, from predicting that iPhone can’t possibly succeed to passionately defending the PC as other technologies make it less relevant.

This week, Ballmer’s theater of the absurd redefined absurdity. First he blurted out that their newest OS, to be called Windows 8, will be released in 2012. Shortly thereafter, a Microsoft “spokesperson” issued a clarification: “It appears there was a misstatement.” Turns out, there is no timetable yet for the new OS, and there is no confirmation of its name.

Honestly, can you imagine this kind of screwup taking place at any other company?

It’s not like there isn’t a growing chorus of calls for Ballmer’s retirement. The latest came yesterday from the president of Greenlight Capital, David Einhorn. He describes the Microsoft CEO as being “stuck in the past.”

The good news for Microsoft is that Ballmer doesn’t have to be stuck in its present. It’s not all that hard to send a CEO packing.

Though I have no current fondness for Microsoft, I’ve often wondered how things might change if they actually had a visionary CEO. I imagine Microsoft’s stockholders have been wondering the same thing.

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  • Riz

    I am sure Steve & Bill have some sort of vote majority through the type of shares they hold — and they hold a lot of shares. Steve’s wealth (almost $15 Billion) is almost entirely made of MS shares.

    That can be THE only reason Steve is still the CEO.

  • Bmcfadden

    Steve Ballmer is a chair- throwing monkey who lacks any vision whatsoever. Having been proven wrong time and time again, i hope he is done spreading doubt and lies about Apple.

    Ballmers reign will end once the money stops pouring in. He has almost milked the windows monopoly for all it is worth, consumers and businesses are turning away in droves for security and performance reasons. I think Microsoft is now a “zombie” company living off the rotting fruits and dead bodies of its past. I predict Ballmer will see the inevitable profit collapse coming from a mile away, and he will bail out in time to pass the blame to his successor.

  • rd

    Ballmers’ Guardian Angel is Bill Gates.

    Microsoft only knows one play which
    is to use FUD to disable its competitors.
    problem with that is that Microsoft has
    to copy IBM, Oracle, Apple, Google, SAP, etc.
    It gets real tiring.
    Microsoft culture is quite hostile to engineering.
    They do know how to reverse engineer well.
    Problem is that Google attacks them with free
    and Apple attacks them with premium drool
    worthy product. but they have to protect their
    bread and butter Windows and Office and use
    it to fight everything else. Well consumers are rejecting them so they are have tough time coping
    disparate business models. Also any company
    they buy they have to throw away non Microsoft tech and start a new which is like throwing baby with the bath water (it would be easier for them to copy but they can’t seem to do that as well).
    All the startups don’t use Microsoft tech, it is simple as that so they can no longer do what they did with OpenGL and XBOX.

    There only hope is they might be able to leverage
    Windows API unto Phone and Slates next year unless
    the playing field changes again then they will be
    scrambling once again.

  • Jim H

    I’d like them to retire Ballmer and get a new CEO who would really copy Apple. Buy/start a computer company, design a new OS based on UNIX and give Apple some competition.

  • Bill Burkholder

    Oh, please, COPY Apple? Like that is going to work!

    Apple has been working for over a decade on all their current technologies, as well as all of their customer relationship, marketing, retailing, vendor sourcing, and product development strategies.

    Apple succeeds because they control the variables so well.

    Microsoft does need to innovate, but they need to differentiate, and not just copy. In short, they need to LEAD in a segment they create or invent. That would be copying Apple in the best, and in and admirable, sort of way.

  • The existence of someone like Ballmer isn’t very mysterious to me. He’s simply a Sales guy, one of those newer breed who don’t—or can’t—differentiate between the internal pep talks Sales people hoot at each other and the message his company must convey to the rest of the world.

    At the risk of making a broad generalization, I’ve found many individuals in this category have only two weapons in their arsenal: charm and intimidation.

    And his public embarrassments have plenty of accompaniment from the likes of RIM’s co-CEOs, to name two.

  • Doug

    Don’t always agree with you but you have this straight on

  • Bill

    I agree ballmer is incompetent, but consider the alternative.

    Who can we think of who would be the perfect guy to turn around Microsoft and make it relevant again?

    How about Steve Jobs from 1998. Now imagine, there’s a time machine and we can get Steve Jobs from 1998 in front of the Microsoft board… but since we did this, he wouldn’t have returned to Apple, so the Microsoft board has no knowledge of the current timeline where he turned around Apple.

    Do you think, for a second, they would hire him?

    You think its possible for Microsoft to ever have a board that would?

    Or anyone who would be radical enough to turn the ship around, yet prominent enough that the board would think they had the “gravitas” to do it?

    The only candidates the board would consider for the role are incompetent midlevel managers, like Ballmer.

    The company is full of such candidates. In fact, above the engineering leaves, the entire tree is just such people. Almost all of whome have spent their entire career at MSFT.

    And thus all of them would be just as bad as Ballmer.

    I think Microsoft is terminal…. it will just take a very long time for it to die.

  • ken segall

    You make some very good points. In a world where everyone criticizes everything (Microsoft in particular), one can only imagine the uproar if Microsoft board selected someone like the young Steve Jobs. You’d hear things like “He almost destroyed his previous company,” “he doesn’t have the right kind of experience,” etc. Hard to imagine they could ever make that leap. It all comes down to the makeup of Microsoft’s board. They have an obligation to their shareholders, so they will no doubt want to make as solid and safe a decision as they can — which may just prolong the death, as you say. Unfortunately, great technology visionaries capable of running a giant corporation aren’t exactly plentiful. So it would be a tough choice even if they were willing to bet on an unconventional choice.

  • Bill

    Thanks for the response Ken. I do wish it weren’t that way, as a Microsoft that actually innovated would be a good thing for the world to have.

    PS- My nym is fake of course, but I have, in fact, worked for MSFT in the past.