For the man who thought bigger was better – it was time for Steve Ballmer to go

Ballmer tripled revenue at Microsoft since he replaced Bill Gates in 2000

Steve Ballmer greets host Ryan Seacrest at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2012. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Steve Ballmer greets host Ryan Seacrest at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2012. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

 

Steve Ballmer is an imposing man. He is tall. He is solid. He is loud (his foghorn voice does not have a sotto voce setting).

For a big guy, he also can be surprisingly animated, as anyone will know who has watched those ubiquitous online videos of his (in)famous “developers” speech, in which he storms back and forth onstage, flailing his arms and inciting a room of developers to clap and chant “Developers! Developers! Developers!”

It’s pretty cringemaking – doing that kind of thing needed a bit of tongue-in- cheek self-irony and there is absolutely none.

The Developers chant – as well as the even more (in)famous “Monkey Dance” video clips of him leaping about at a Microsoft anniversary event, just seemed to signify everything that was annoying, trivial and wannabe hip,
but also alarmingly
powerful, about what was then, one of the mightiest
tech companies.

Some appraisals of Ballmer, following his sudden announcement that he would be stepping down from the helm of Microsoft in the next year, pointed to such videos as evidence that Ballmer was more a clown than a proper chief executive.

The only surprise, goes this line of thinking, is that he stayed in the driver’s seat of the company after succeeding founder Bill Gates, for so long.

But that would be unfair to a man who tripled revenue and doubled profits since he replaced Gates in January 2000 – even though share prices have skydived, more than halving the value of the company in those years.

Ballmer was – and is – a tough and intelligent man. So is Gates. The company as it was conceived and as it stands is the product of both of them.

Gates told Forbes in 1999, “We’re both pretty good about being two people with one huge job. Who has what title isn’t a phenomenal element of that.”

Read any history of Microsoft and its clear the company was, like many successful companies, the result of luck, chance, drive and a product vacuum desperately waiting to be filled, even by an essentially crappy product.

The crappy product was DOS, which Gates hoped to flog to IBM as an operating system (OS) for a revolutionary new product – personal computers. IBM didn’t buy it; a disappointed Gates instead turned to licensing it to PC manufacturers and the rest is history.

Thanks to the internet, in the past 15 years, Microsoft’s market changed drastically. The PC and Windows become ever less important. Ballmer – and Gates, as chairman – failed to get the right new products into this shifting market at the right time.

That is why the company’s shares are being punished.

Yet Ballmer could see some of this change from the start.

I interviewed him in Dublin in December 1999, just as his succession to Gates was announced. I was nervous – a bit terrified, actually – and had 20 minutes to cover a huge amount of territory. Thankfully, Ballmer talks fast.

When I asked him where Microsoft was heading, he said: “The next generation web platform is just a huge opportunity. Think of Windows as just a part of it. Think of it as a new thing called iWindows – it’s a client and a server and a set of services that live out on the internet. It’s a building block.”

He clearly got that the OS might no longer be the dominant element. I asked him if he thought the importance of Windows (or any OS) might be waning with the growth of the net, and he reiterated: “As I said, I think the platform is more than a clientside operating system. It’s the client, the server and a set of services.”

He noted Netscape founder (and creator of the first popular web browser Navigator) Marc Andreessen’s prediction that one day, Windows would just be a set of drivers running Navigator “and all the users will know is Navigator, and all the developers will talk to is Navigator”.

Ballmer recognised that such a browser-centric vision (even if not focused on Navigator) could come to pass.

And it has – with Microsoft ill-prepared for it, 14 years later.

He also didn’t get a key related issue that would affect its other cashcow product, Office. Users were already beginning to want less software bloat and simpler functionality.

Would leaner software offer a better experience? I asked.

“You can’t take back something unless nobody uses it, and most things, somebody uses. Software should get bigger every year,” he said.

Nope. That’s why free lightweight Google Docs ate Word’s lunch.

Hindsight is always a clear view, of course, and at the time, no one knew how the internet or the computing or device market would develop.

But going on this interview, Ballmer, even in 1999, had a very good idea of the possibilities. His goal, he told me toward the end of our 20 minutes, was “to see our company rise up and provide the technology for the next wave [the internet] , benefit consumers and succeed as a company.”

That this didn’t happen in some critical product and service sectors, even with that army of “developers, developers, developers,” is certainly an indictment of both Gates and Ballmer. It has led to Microsoft becoming an also-ran in too many areas. It was time for Ballmer to go.