Ballmers Departure From Microsoft Comes 10 Years Too Late

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Photo: Jim Merithew/

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Photo: Jim Merithew/

Steve Ballmer is stepping down as the CEO of Microsoft, and Wall Street is rather pleased.

On Friday, Ballmer announced that, after 33 years with the company that defined software in the 1980s and ’90s, he will retire sometime within the next 12 months. As of noon Eastern, Microsoft’s stock price had climbed nearly 6 percent. The money men have spoken, and for once, they’re making sense.

In some ways, it’s sad to see Big Steve go. He had a wonderful way of filling a room — with his bellowing voice, his endless stream of hyperbole, his sometimes awkward physicality, and, yes, with just the size of his frame. And for those of us who lived through the PC revolution, Ballmer — employee Number 30 at Microsoft — is the company’s one remaining link to the days when it so swiftly took hold of the tech universe.

But during Ballmer’s decade at Microsoft’s helm — he took the reins from founder Bill Gates in 2000 — the company dug itself a hole that it will be lucky to crawl from in the decade to come.

The 21st century doesn’t look good for the tech giants of the ’80s and ’90s. HP and Dell have lost much of their mojo to more nimble operations in Asia that are now building vast swathes of the hardware that drives the web’s most popular services. Oracle is struggling in the face not only of those hardware upstarts, but also a whole new breed of software makers and web companies offering tools that suit the modern internet in ways Larry Ellison’s aging software never could. And then’s there’s Ballmer and Microsoft, who had even more to lose — and lost it.

In some ways, it’s hard to blame Ballmer. Like HP and Dell and Oracle, Microsoft suffers from the innovator’s dilemma. It built such a successful business on the back of Windows — covering not only the desktop and laptops PCs we all used, but also the computer servers and other hardware that drove the modern corporation — it was difficult for the company to change course without undercutting its own bottom line. And the rise of open source software has hit the company right at the heart of its operation.

It’s notable that perhaps the biggest success of Ballmer’s time at the head of Microsoft, the Xbox video game console, wasn’t build on top of Windows, allowing the console to grow and morph on its own, without having to align itself with the Windows monolith.

But surely, Ballmer could have extended the success beyond the Xbox. Surely, he could have done more than just mimic Apple and Amazon and Google, churning out what are little more than imitations of the age’s most important innovations: the iPhone, the iPad, Amazon Web Services, Google Search, and on down the line. Surely, it could have embraced open source software far sooner than it did — and embraced it harder.

Yes, some will argue that Surface and Azure and Bing are superior to what came before — at least technically. But others will tell you that’s nonsense. Either way, they’re still imitations, and in most cases — like Microsoft’s belated and half-hearted move towards open source — they came too late to give Microsoft a foothold in a future where Windows is largely irrelevant.

What’s more, as it was trying to mimic Apple and Google with one hand, Microsoft was squeezing its own customers with the other. In 1995, people lined up to buy Windows 95. But ten years later, they were at war with the company over the Windows operating system. The perception was that Microsoft was giving them shoddy software and forcing them to use it.

Microsoft was behaving like it had always behaved. But in a new world where desktop software was less important — where the web made it far more difficult to shift a market merely with money and force of will — Ballmer and company ended up doing themselves more harm than good, as they worked to bully their way to success on all fronts.

These battles are largely lost. And now, the task is different. Microsoft must find a way to claw out of its hole, find some way of leap-frogging the Apples and the Amazons and the Googles with the next wave of “devices and services,” and clearly, that requires new leadership.

You can give Ballmer credit for realizing his time has come. Last month, he shuffled the lieutenants beneath him, and now, he will take the next step. “There is never a perfect time for this type of transition, but now is the right time,” he said in a statement.

You just have to wonder if it comes too late.

Photo: WIRED


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