worth the read
Rumors had swirled throughout the day that Ballmer planned to go out in a blaze of glory, offering a peek at a yet-to-be-released stunner from a company whose recent innovations had too often been lackluster or worse. Instead, what emerged was a gonzo spectacle, structured as a confab between Seacrest and Ballmer. Cookie Monster showed up, as did a gospel choir that belted out a bizarre song composed entirely of random tweets shot into cyberspace by who-the-hell-knows.
As for announcements of quantum leaps into the technological future: nothing. Ballmer applauded the still-long-awaited Windows 8 operating system (which as of this writing is available only as a release preview online). He burbled about his expectations for Xbox, the game console that successfully competed with Sony PlayStation. Out came Windows Phone 7 again, which, despite widespread praise from users, had experienced bleak sales results. A demo followed, which proved an embarrassment; the device’s voice-to-text messaging failed and then another glitch forced a Microsoft staffer to reach for a different phone. The media response was dismal—the company’s last presentation, a prominent blogger wrote, was a “cruel joke.”
Microsoft’s low-octane swan song was nothing if not symbolic of more than a decade littered with errors, missed opportunities, and the devolution of one of the industry’s innovators into a “me too” purveyor of other companies’ consumer products. Over those years, inconsequential pip-squeaks and onetime zombies—Google, Facebook, Apple—roared ahead, transforming the social-media-tech experience, while a lumbering Microsoft relied mostly on pumping out Old Faithfuls such as Windows, Office, and servers for its financial performance.
Amid a dynamic and ever changing marketplace, Microsoft—which declined to comment for this article—became a high-tech equivalent of a Detroit car-maker, bringing flashier models of the same old thing off of the assembly line even as its competitors upended the world. Most of its innovations have been financial debacles or of little consequence to the bottom line. And the performance showed on Wall Street; despite booming sales and profits from its flagship products, in the last decade Microsoft’s stock barely budged from around $30, while Apple’s stock is worth more than 20 times what it was 10 years ago. In December 2000, Microsoft had a market capitalization of $510 billion, making it the world’s most valuable company. As of June it is No. 3, with a market cap of $249 billion. In December 2000, Apple had a market cap of $4.8 billion and didn’t even make the list. As of this June it is No. 1 in the world, with a market cap of $541 billion.
But, strangely, Ballmer may be invaluable for the company’s future. Because the time may be coming when the sprawling Microsoft empire will have to be busted up, like any other company that has spread itself too thin into too many product lines. And a deal-maker like Ballmer is just the type to lead that kind of massive corporate reorganization.
Ballmer has said he plans to stay in the saddle until 2018, but whether he and the rest of Microsoft’s management want it or not, change will almost certainly come as Wall Street tires of the company’s unfulfilled promises. Already there are rumblings that the time for him to go could be in the offing.
In Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography Steve Jobs, Jobs acknowledged Ballmer’s role in Microsoft’s problems: “The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company.… [Then] the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off. It happened at Apple when [John] Sculley came in, which was my fault, and it happened when Ballmer took over at Microsoft. Apple was lucky and it rebounded, but I don’t think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it.”
Most interesting, however, is that Jobs put the ultimate blame on Bill Gates: “They were never as ambitious product-wise as they should have been. Bill likes to portray himself as a man of the product, but he’s really not. He’s a businessperson. Winning business was more important than making great products. Microsoft never had the humanities and liberal arts in its DNA.”