Steve Ballmer, the marketing- and sales-centric force of nature who took over as Microsoft CEO in 2000, and became the public face of the company following Bill Gate's full retirement in 2008, has just announced that he too will be retiring, in 2014. Bill Gates oversaw the rise of Microsoft to brutal dominance in the late 90s and early 00s, only to face severe anti-trust action from the government that forced them into becoming a more mature, if less effective company. Ballmer was hugely successful in milking Windows and Office profits, but aside from the almost accidental birth of the Xbox, has been completely unable to transform the old giant into a new power. Google owns the internet. Facebook owns social. Apple owns tablets. And Apple and Google jointly own phones. That leaves precious little space for the company that once defined popular technology. Ballmer said, in Microsoft's announcement:
There is never a perfect time for this type of transition, but now is the right time. We have embarked on a new strategy with a new organization and we have an amazing Senior Leadership Team. My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our company’s transformation to a devices and services company. We need a CEO who will be here longer term for this new direction.
Ballmer mistook his products for his business, and that's a fatal mistake in technology. While Apple was busy building iPod on top of Mac, cannibalizing iPod with iPod mini and nano, then iPhone, cannibalizing Mac with iPad, then iPad mini, and always making sure they had a new instantiation of their business ready to rise even before the old began to fall, Ballmer clung to Windows and Office. His fear of hurting the old crippled Microsoft when it came to inventing the new. Contrast this to Google who spun on a dime and pushed out Android and Google+, and has kept annexing greater slices of the internet with YouTube and Maps, and their relative positions in todays market are easily understandable.
Microsoft should have had Xphone and Xslate, with cutting edge Office, Exchange, and Halo, on the market 5 years ago, in a coherent, integrated product that leveraged the best of their OS, gaming, enterprise, and cloud competencies. Instead, they have almost no presence in modern mobile computing or consumer facing services.
Just as Microsoft supplanted IBM, they face the very real possibility of being supplanted. Still in technology, but no longer relevant to the future of technology.
I'll miss Ballmer the showman, the guy who ran, sweaty, on stage and pounded out "Developers! Developers! Developers!", who discounted the iPhone and iPad, and who not only never saw his competition coming, but seldom seemed to notice or care as their tore on by. But not in the way I should. Not in the way I miss Bill Gates.
It's unclear who, if anyone, could step in at this point an enact the changes necessary to avert that destiny. There are few enough product people in the world, and fewer still who could effectively change a culture as big as Microsoft. Even a second coming of Bill Gates is unlikely to be what they really need anymore.
Yet we need someone who can do just that. Who can make the best of Microsoft - Xbox and Windows Phone and Media Center - all of Microsoft. Someone who can make Microsoft a strong, vibrant competitor to Google and Apple and Facebook and Amazon so all of us can enjoy better and more vibrant competition. We need someone who can make Microsoft great again.