Ballmer comments reflect deeper problems

Ballmer comments reflect deeper problems

Summary: Steve Ballmer's latest rant against open source, and Microsoft's internal reaction to it, reflect deep problems within the company.Part of the problem is that, as they say, Elvis has left the building.


elvis-stamp.jpgSteve Ballmer's latest rant against open source, and Microsoft's internal reaction to it, reflect deep problems within the company.

Part of the problem is that, as they say, Elvis has left the building. Elvis in this case is Bill Gates, Ballmer's one-time Harvard classmate, the drop-out whose strategic vision and intense focus made Microsoft what it is.

Part of the problem is that Ballmer has never really acknowledged this. It was Steve Ballmer who built Microsoft's sales effort, Steve Ballmer who created its esprit de corps, and Steve Ballmer, whose chip on the shoulder attitude he's never been without that we recall, who doesn't understand how the game has changed.

You can't fight open source as you would fight IBM, or Novell, or the U.S. Justice Department, the enemies from the 1990s. Those foes put their pants on one leg at a time, just like Microsoft did. Open source is not like that.

Open source is not a person, or a company, but a movement. It's an idea. It's like water. You fight water you drown. Each time Steve Ballmer opens his mouth this becomes more obvious to observers on the shore. Yet it never seems to occur to him. And he's the boss.

The fact Ballmer made these remarks in England only compounds the problem. The EU still has an active antitrust case against Microsoft. The EU has not yet agreed with the U.S. policy on software patents. Bluster in the face of all this was ill-advised, yet Ballmer blustered away.

Bill Gates would have handled things differently. He would have smiled. He would have been diplomatic. He probably would not have commented at all, yet he would have left the impression that the EU is somehow working against competition in fighting Microsoft, and ignoring the interests of its own innovators in rejecting software patents.

Microsoft is going through a tough transition. It is an entrepreneurial company whose entrepreneur has left. Steve Ballmer was as close to Gates as anyone, and has long felt he could fill his shoes, but can he really make Microsoft an ad-driven company when his sense of public relations is so poor?

None of this really matters to open source. Open source, like water, will flow around Microsoft the way a stream flows past a rock in its path. But Microsoft needs a swimmer to succeed in this new environment, and its leader keeps doing cannonballs.[poll id=55]

Topics: Microsoft, CXO, Open Source

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Yes, Microsoft is it's own worst enemy here. or maybe better said, BALMER

    is Microsoft's worst enemy.

    But, to be honest, the transition to an ad driven company will be extremely painful. It will mean huge drops in revenue and a falling stock price. It will probably mean that Google will eventually have a higher market cap than Microsoft, something unbearable to Steve Balmer. The problem for Microsoft is when to jump ship. How much water do they have to take on before they realize the twin cash cows can not carry them anymore. Right now they are only staring at the iceberg, watching Google improve online aplications, make them work offline, figure out all the ins and outs. Well, they do have one mate below reinforcing the hull, Ozzie is doing his best to create a version of web applications that depends on Windows, hoping that will keep them afloat a while longer.
    • Is advertising really the only way to go?

      What about products? What about subscriptions? What about business services? What about system integration?

      IBM makes a ton of money in all these areas, and I see most of what Microsoft is doing now to be aimed in that direction.

      Problem is they don't do it as well.
  • Ballmer

    [i]when people come to us and say, "Hey, this commercial piece of software violates our patent, our intellectual property, we'll either get a court judgment or we'll pay a big check. And we are going to - I think it is important that the open source products also have an obligation to participate in the same way in the same way in the intellectual property regime[/i]

    This is a wonderful statement. I wonder then why he doesn't do as he states here and state what he believes violates their IP, and instead resorts to vague threats?

    I also disagree that they should HAVE to pay for the infringing IP, they should equally have the opportunity to remove/rework the infringing IP.
    • Well, Balmer does not want any infringing IP to be removed, that would

      kill his FUD campaigns. He of course also does not want a court reviewing all of those junk patents and having a lot of them invalidated.

      Kind of funny to watch him squirm.
    • Glass houses, etc...

      You can bet Microsoft has infringing code in their products. If they did not and did not mind being put under the microscope, Ballmer might actually try to enforce his IP issues just like MS has done in the past. I think he fears GPL3 due to infringement on open source code by MS and this is why MS wants the deals cut with open source. Since Ballmer can't bluff Red Hat he is stuck with just spewing rhetoric.
    • RE: Ballmer

      I thought that M$ was supposed to be making nice....between the Novell suicide pact and begging for OSS developers on Port 25, they kind of give the outward appearence of at least coming to terms with OSS. Sounds like Herr Ballmer is doing the thorazine shuffle......
  • That was superb

    D T Schmitz
  • RE: Ballmer comments reflect deeper problems

    My recommendation is to forget ads entirely.
  • Ballmer Worst CEO Ever?

    Shareholders of MS have to wonder about their return on investment since 1999 ... $4 Billion on MSN to lose to AOL? $15 Billion in the red on Xbox so far? $1 billion on cable set-top boxes? 10 years to catch Palm? Apple produced a OSX lite for the iphone that is lightning fast - MS has produced how many versions of "CE?" that is still bloated? Or their ventures in home networking, home media & how their WMA online music stores got trumped by itunes in 3 weeks? Or the Zune? Steve Ballmer may have been a great director of enterprise sales but as CEO, he could not be more ill-fitting because he thinks bluster is the same as strategic thinking. He's just not that visionary and not that smart. No one likes to admit but he seems to think we don't see that ...
    • I wouldn't lay it all off on Ballmer

      A lot of the processes you complain around here were in place long, long before Ballmer became CEO.

      They made some objective sense when Microsoft was a one or two product company. You're right -- companies with lots of lines have to move more quickly. But when I hung around Redmond it was apparent that saying no to what would be a bad deal got as many attaboys as saying yes to a potentially good deal.

      IMHO, product managers need to be given their head, and have those heads chopped off when they fail to perform. Treat these people like entrepreneurs and they will be behave more like entrepreneurs.

      The risk is you get a lot of back-biting, but if the whole team's raises and bonuses are on the line for performance you can reduce that to a minimum.
    • You forgot VISTA

      You forgot VISTA as one of the biggest blunders made, before anyone stomps on this as me ranting. ANY operating system that has to be reinstalled just to get rid of the "Black Screen of Death" or come up with false piracy detection. Is not ready to be released, yet they did.. If there was a version of Autocad for Linux, and if had a Visio like tool. I would dump MS altogether, and reccomend that my clients do as well.
  • Need better poll questions

    I definitely think that MS cannot overcome either public suspicion or chronic legal problems unless Steve Ballmer is replaced as both president and CEO (maybe he can get a job with the Gates Foundation), but I hold no MS shares, want none, wouldn't pawn them off on anyone else if I had them (I'd vote them instead), and think Joe Torre deserves better than he's ever likely to get from George Steinbrenner.
    John L. Ries
    • Best I could do on short notice

      Pick the one about selling your MS shares, even if you don't have one. That seems to come closest to your feelings on the matter.
    • Need an option:

      Let him keep his position, its good for the competing OS's.
      • Exactly.

        Which is why I voted "Keep him. He is a visionary," but there is nefarious intent behind my vote.
  • Monkey Boy is Microsoft's equivalent of Gil Amelio

    Gil was a disaster for Apple that they are still recovering from. I suspect Microsoft will end up "hiring back" Bill just like Apple rehired Steve Jobs. I don't know if Bill will be able to repair Ballmer's damage however. Microsoft is pretty much coasting on inertia right now, but once the momentum is used up, getting the behemoth moving in the right direction is going to take a LOT of effort.
    • Amelio is the wrong analogy IMO

      I was thinking more of John Akers. Akers ran IBM after Tom Watson Sr. retired. He was an IBM lifer, steeped in the company's corporate way. He wore a nice suit. He had executive-style hair.

      And he let the first kid with a Clue knock IBM off its perch. That kid was Bill Gates.

      I think what Microsoft needs right now is the equivalent of a Lou Gerstner.
  • RE: Ballmer comments reflect deeper problems

    I've worked at M$ and speeches by Ballmer are just high-school rah-rah. At the time I heard him, Windows 98 just had been released and he was full of absurd bluster about the DOJ lawsuit.
    • Bluster is his thing...

      I had some time to reflect on this piece, and in a way bluster may just be Ballmer's thing, a heritage from his days running sales organizations. (Developers, developers, developers...)

      On the other hand the company's problems run deeper than one man, and today's piece on the Google business model reflects that.

  • Software patents in the EU

    Judging from the abstract, that IBLS article is highly misleading (and out of date). The CII Directive was abandoned in 2005. It was a Directive aimed at codifying extant EPO practice and harmonising it across EPC signatory states (not all of which are EU members). The EPO currently grants both software and business method patents and, as Michael Guntersdorfer, Maria Rossi, Keith Beresford and many others have pointed out, EPO practice does not differ significantly from US practice. (The requirement for "technical considerations" or a "technical contribution" is extremely weak).

    Despite this economically illiterate and unethical EPO policy and practice, some EU states - most notably the UK - do more closely follow the EPC in letter and spirit. But patents can of course be used effectively even if they would almost certainly not survive litigation in any court. Acacia Research, the notorious "patent troll" company is believed to have managed to extract licence fees from European companies for European equivalents of its infamous US "streaming media" patents.

    Lastly, it is said by some that the quality of examination is higher at the EPO than at the USPTO and that the requirement for non-obviousness is stricter. This may be the case - I don't expect to see the "combover" or the "cat laser" or multiple LZW patents appearing in the EPO database anytime soon - but in light of the actual contents of that database and in view of (among others) the shocking decision of the EPO to grant Microsoft, on appeal, "Data transfer with expanded clipboard formats" (EP0717354), it is clear that the EPO is at least not usefully better in this area.