Ballmer’s iPhone call just about said it all
The Microsoft chief executive will be remembered for failing to recognise the threat posed by the iPhone
Steve Ballmer’s blanket dismissal of the iPhone back in 2007 will go down as one of the most damning moments of his career. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg
In 1962, the head of A&R at Decca Records, Dick Rowe, rejected the chance to sign the Beatles, allegedly telling Brian Epstein that the foursome had no chance of making it in the music industry.
Reality, of course, proved otherwise and, despite Rowe’s other successes in the business, he was from that point on destined to be remembered as the buffoon who couldn’t spot how amazing the Beatles were.
Now replace “music label A&R man” with “technology company chief executive” and “the Beatles” with “the iPhone”, and you might get a picture of the fate history has in store for Steve Ballmer.
His blanket dismissal of the iPhone back in 2007 will go down as one of the most damning moments of his career.
The video of one interview from that time is rightly famous – a journalist has the temerity to ask him how he reacted when Steve Jobs unveiled the revolutionary touchscreen device.
He narrows those deep-set eyes, thrusts his head forward, flashes a shark-like grin, audibly snorts, and then, in a moment that will haunt him for ever more, guffaws with a theatrical, forced laugh.
“$500, fully subsidised, with a plan? I said that is the most expensive phone in the world,” he bellows disdainfully.
He follows it up with a painfully unconvincing defence of Microsoft’s position in mobile, citing something called the Motorola Q as evidence that his company is all over the space, and heavily implies that Steve Jobs is some sort of Walter Mitty character.
In the space of 120 seconds, he runs the gamut of defensive, delusional, out-of-touch, aggressive and foolish. The clip fairly summarised his ill-starred reign, in which he oversaw the decline of the empire Bill Gates built, the firm going from fearsome technological colossus to hapless irrelevance.
It is very unlikely that Friday’s bombshell announcement he was leaving was of his own volition – nobody who proposes the sort of structural reorganisation he did last month is in a mind to step down.
This is a firing, basically, and it would appear the last straw for the board was the $900 million write-down he had to take on the disastrous Surface RT tablet device Microsoft brought out last year.
It speaks volumes about Microsoft’s listlessness that the last straw needed to be just shy of a billion dollars, particularly when it was clear for more than half a decade at least that the man was utterly incapable of leading the company in an era of post-PC disruption.