After all the many, many thousands of words expended on the subject of Steve Ballmer’s decision to retire as CEO of Microsoft, I can’t help feeling the lasting verdict on his impending departure was the fact the company’s shares jumped 8% in the aftermath of the announcement on 23rd August.
Money talks and in this case it spoke quite loudly, although not quite as manically as Ballmer himself in his infamous appearance at Microsoft’s 25th anniversary celebrations in 2000. But the share price rise showed that people obviously expected a new face would help reinvigorate the software giant and give it some fresh impetus.
Anyway, I don’t intend to add too many words to the many that have already been written on this subject save to say that he left his decision to go much later than he should have done. Ballmer’s main fault was to see everything through Windows glasses with PC lenses. When the smartphone and tablet markets took off, Microsoft was left trailing because of his monolithic vision of the IT world.
Of course, it wasn’t just him. Windows is the DNA of the company he heads. Nearly all roads lead back to it and for many years it has been the only signpost Microsoft follows. So maybe he had no choice other than to do what he did. The problem was that it made him sound too often like someone who “just didn’t get it”, for example in his comments about the iPhone and iPad.
Over the past few years, Microsoft has often struggled to compete with the likes of Samsung, Apple and Google. In the past, it has been able to bring the contest with other platforms and vendors onto its own territory but the latest challenges are taking it to unfamiliar places where it is less assured and less confident.
Will a new face change that? It’s asking a lot. You need to do a lot more to change the company than just switch the name and face at the top. That’s something Microsoft found out to a certain extent when Bill Gates stepped aside and was replaced by Ballmer. Apple has had to grapple with something similar since Jobs’ untimely death.
Yes, Microsoft announced reorganisation plans recently that are designed to transform it into a devices and services company but you might remember that Ballmer also described its ambition to “immerse people in deep entertainment experiences that let them have serious fun in ways so intense and delightful that they will blur the line between reality and fantasy”. Those were not the words of someone who truly understood the difference between the corporate and personal markets. And they definitely didn’t sound like the words of a company that was ready to take on the likes of Apple and Samsung in the smartphone and tablet markets.
When I wrote about the reorganisation at Microsoft back in July, I pointed out that Ballmer ended his company memo with the following words: “Let’s go.” I added that there were probably quite a few people who replied: “Please do.” Well, now he has (or will be).
In the memo announcing his pending retirement, Ballmer stated: “Microsoft has all its best days ahead.” Some of the more unkind souls out there might have been tempted to add: “Especially after you’ve gone.” But they might well be disappointed. Whatever Ballmer’s faults, he’s only one person in Microsoft. A very big person at Microsoft, but not the only one. So even when he goes and his successor is anointed, it might not be that easy for the new CEO to transform Microsoft into “a devices and services company that empowers people for the activities they value most”. Whatever that means.
This was first published in August 2013