Is Steve Ballmer the best Microsoft CEO candidate?

Is Steve Ballmer the best Microsoft CEO candidate?

Summary: What if the best CEO for Microsoft turned out to be the one it already has? Ballmer has the experience, guts, and passion to succeed.

TOPICS: CXO, Microsoft

While there was nary a tear shed when Ballmer announced his impending retirement, after three months hearing about proposed CEO candidates, it begs the question, what if Ballmer actually was the best choice?

Aside from his in-depth knowledge of the Microsoft machine, with a record quarter just reported, is Steve's strategy finally paying off? He's shown tenacity, pouring money into Xbox, Bing, and hardware; grown the enterprise business, made some gutsy (and/or insane) acquisitions, and put Microsoft into the fight on many fronts.

Certainly he has his detractors--Microsoft executed poorly on mobile, has a cutthroat internal political culture (stack rank), and has been slow to get its talented technical teams to work together. Perhaps a rebuked and humbled Ballmer would modify his ways.

Microsoft announced their shortlist for candidates; others have summarized the candidates' shortcomings. Here's my take:

  • Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford--Ballmer has been criticized for not being in touch with technology or having a software engineering background. Mulally would be even less-skilled in this area. If half the people reporting to him are technical leads trying to persuade him on where to make his bets, would he be able to process what they're pushing for?

  • Stephen Elop, former CEO of Nokia and former Microsoft vice president--his Microsoft experience is solid and he was a well-liked executive while he was with Microsoft. However, his performance at Nokia was less-than-stellar and became a shell of its former self under Elop's leadership.

  • Tony Bates, executive vice president for business development and evangelism and former CEO of Skype--definitely understands the engineers and seems to have the will that has made Skype slammed into various Microsoft offerings.

  • Satya Nadella, president of server and tools, Microsoft--arguably the best choice; Nadella comes from an engineering and business background, and has managed diverse groups within Microsoft which gives him an ability to connect across disciplines. From the money-losing online division to the cash-generating server and tools business, Nadella will be able to communicate to the stakeholders within those divisions.

But what if they just kept Steve Ballmer? He's grown his executive team to include the above-mentioned talent; he has a reorganization in motion which furthered his strategy and, based on the last quarter's results, seems to be paying off. He also has the distinct experience of having run Microsoft to year after year of strong growth.

Topics: CXO, Microsoft


Howard spent 14 years in the tech industry working as a programmer, evangelist, and community manager for Microsoft. In 2009, he had lived his "dream" of middle-management long enough and opened a Japanese restaurant called Standing Sushi Bar. Trading in stock grants and software licenses for raw fish and cash, he enjoys mixing his passion for technology into the daily hustle of small business.

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  • Amen to that!

    Thank god somebody finally realized it!
    • Bumbling Ballmer ruined more mobile OSes than anyone in history

      Ballmer ruined Windows Mobile.

      He ruined its replacement, Windows Phone 7. Then that was scrapped to make way for Windows Phone 8, which was a rewrite with a different kernel. That will be rewritten again next year when it turns into Windows RT, another complete failure.

      Oh, I forgot to mention that he ruined Microsoft's Sidekick phone (does anyone remember that?) and don't even mention the Kin phone.

      He even managed to ruin OSes from other vendors, such as Meego, which he destroyed (apparently via his proxy at Nokia, called Elop).

      Ballmer has left a train wreck behind at Microsoft, which will be difficult for anyone to fix.
      • Stupid

        All you know is mobile & wP7. Wake up and bang your head in the wall! Microsoft is not only mobile.
        • Yes, but mobile WAS Microsoft's future

          The PC era is ending.

          Like Steve Jobs said, PCs will become like trucks. There will still be trucks around for those that need them, but the majority of people will use lighter devices (ARM-based devices).

          Ballmer's plan was to make Windows RT the future. He even put a phone interface (Metro) on a desktop OS (Windows 8) and risked everything to try to encourage PC users to move to Windows RT (on the Surface tablet).

          Well, those future plans have all gone up in smoke, and Windows RT on the Surface tablet are a sales disaster.

          With its OS monopoly crumbling, Microsoft will have to do something else. Without an OS monopoly, it will also be difficult to sell Office.

          Probably one of the bozos listed above will take Microsoft out of the consumer market, and concentrate on the corporate market. The smouldering remains of Surface and Windows Phone will be left behind.
          • The PC era isn’t ending

            The car/truck analogy thought up (probably) by Steve Jobs was a clever marketing ploy, but wrong. Virtually everyone still uses a PC, especially at work, but also at home. Most people (at least where I live) have never owned or driven a truck (and lack even a driving licence for trucks), and many don’t own a car either (with good public transport, who needs one?). In contrast, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own a PC, or who would be able to do their job without one.

            What’s changed in the PC market is saturation – almost everyone already has one (in the developed world) – and that the hardware technology has reached a critical level, so frequent upgrades are no longer required. This has turned the PC market from a high-growth one into a mature one. It’s now rather like like the market for stereos, washing machines or cars. A PC is arguably more vital for most people than any of those others, but the point is that once you have one, you can use it for years, until it wears out. In the past, it was necessary to upgrade PCs every year or two, to take advantage of new technology. That’s no longer true.

            The tablet and smartphone markets are high-growth for two reasons. First, the markets aren’t yet saturated (though the smartphone market is getting there in developed countries) and second, the technology still isn’t good enough, especially in the tablet market. People want thinner, faster, lighter, etc., so upgrade frequently. As technology progresses, these markets will also mature, and slow down. Once tablets and smartphones are thin enough, light enough, powerful enough, etc., frequent upgrades will become unnecessary. Again, however, this slowdown in market growth won’t mean that people have stopped using the devices. It will just mean they already have them and are satisfied, so don’t feel the need to upgrade.
          • Where do you live...

            where you need a driver's license to drive a truck? I understand if you were talking about a CDL to drive a BIG truck (2 1/2 ton, 5 ton, etc) but where I live you only need a class D to drive a truck. The analogy meant regular pick up trucks... and yes the analogy is true.
          • Where I live...

            most everyone has a truck or at least has driven one. The parking lot is more than 50% trucks, with most of them four wheel drive. Of course, I live in Wyoming. So the analogy works well here.
          • How does the analogy work?

            If most people where you live have trucks, then how does the analogy of the ‘end of the truck era’ work? The point of the analogy is that people supposedly stopped driving trucks and started driving cars, so trucks become niche vehicles and cars become the mass vehicles. Actually, can you name any market where trucks were once the mass form of transport, and were later replaced by cars? The analogy is ridiculous on yet another level. As always with Jobs, though, well marketed. It’s amazing he was able to convince otherwise intelligent people to believe the stupidest things, but I’ve no doubt he enjoyed being able to do that, and probably did it sometimes just for fun.
          • Saturation?

            "What’s changed in the PC market is saturation – almost everyone already has one"

            We reached that point about 15 years ago, but you're right: the problem is that few people really need or want a faster PC now. All the innovation is happening in the mobile space, and Microsoft under Ballmer screwed it up after having a 5+ year head start.
          • Balmer/MS & the mobile space

            Years ago, when MS came out with Zune, I thought they made a huge mistake by not making it a phone rather than just an ipod clone. It was obvious that technology was going with cell phones because everybody has one or needs one. If Zune would have been a phone at launch, maybe MS would seen much differently today.
          • Planned obsolescence

            People think they have to buy a new PC when their XP dies in April. Then they find that Win8 sucks and then they have to buy Windows 7. Some realize they can get a modern OS to replace their XP, Vista or 7, but most folks are clueless.
          • "Planned obsolescence"- you mean Apple, right?

            "Then they find that Win8 sucks and then they have to buy Windows 7."
            Said by someone who has clearly never even used Windows 8/8.1. It's a fantastic system and if it "sucks" then why has Windows 8 usage already surpassed all OS X systems combined, in just one year? Doesn't that mean OS X "sucks"?
          • Apple

            Then how come my 2008 MacBook Pro will run the newest version of OSX (Mavericks) along with current versions of all other software I use?
          • Mobile market

            Yes, Ballmer screwed up in the mobile market, but so did more or less everyone else except Apple and Google. In Google’s case, they were helped by inside information (Schmidt was on the Apple board), a complete disregard for intellectual property law (they basically cloned Apple’s software) and an ad-driven model that allowed them to dump their clone of Apple’s software into the market below cost. Ballmer deserves to be criticised for this failure, but it was more a case of Apple uniquely getting it right (and Google copying Apple) than of Microsoft uniquely getting it wrong.
          • so well said ..

            .. and so true, especially given each new OS seems to run better on old hardware than the previous one.
          • Microsoft shouldn't really care about PCs or mobile...

            The real core of their business and revenues is servers, Office, and development tools. While you do need the OS to run the development tools, it's not the thing that returns the revenue. There are three pillars that should be the focus at Microsoft. They should keep pushing out the best servers and development platform in the world (which includes things like SharePoint and Office in the cloud), they should keep working on making XBOX the dominator in the living room with the big shift away from cable and satellite providers and should sign deals directly with Disney and Discovery for content, and they should keep moving towards integration with hardware to control the entire presentation layer.
          • If the PC era has ending..

            Windows 8 killed it then.

            The PC era has not ended and people still buy desktops. Do some research before posting nonsense.
        • You think so? Tell them that. And tell the world, while you are at it.

          Like it or not, the world IS becoming more mobile, and MS *HAS* (KEY WORD) to realize it.
          And it's not from taking the full-blown, already stigmatized "Windows" and trying to adapt it to Mobile devices.

          And it's not from taking the one thing Microsoft did right in the mobile space - Metro - and trying to stretch it like a badly fitting Halloween costume over your desktop product, claiming it'll now be the ideal thing for desktop AND for mobile!

          No... like all the compromises and kludges already inside Windows, it's yet another compromise - and one that desktop users don't care for.
          Not only that, but it's one that Mobile users don't want on their mobile devices either. There's history here - MS has failed to sell "Windows-on-a-tablet" for over 12 years now.

          And most significantly - MS doesn't understand WHY the iPad was successful from the get-go, why it's become wildly successful, and why Android tablets and Kindle Fire tablets are also more successful and all capture more marketshare than their mobile offerings. Surely you didn't miss the news clip on how MS stock tanked because of huge write-offs tied to consumers being totally non-plussed by RT tablets and failing to buy them? Consumers vote with their wallets.

          Ballmer is the guy who failed to realize:
          a) Why the iPad and Android OS are successfully embraced by consumers.
          b) MS's role in making the iPad successful (hint: Windows stigma)
          c) A strategy to compete with iOS and Android, rather than try to yet again peddle "Windows-on-a-tablet" for the 12th consecutive failed year.

          Calling this guy "the best candidate for CEO of Microsoft" is a death sentence for Microsoft in the face of a changing world.
    • MS' enemies are likely behind all of this

      I think it would be best if Ballmer were kept. I suspect Google et al have been behind most, if not all of the shareholder ruckus against MS. It makes no sense to me to demand the resignation of the CEO of a company with rising share prices, and steadily increasing profits. So there have been hiccups surrounding the launch of Win 8. So what? Unless things are rosy in every single area of MS, the CEO has to go? The behavior of analysts and investors regarding MS have been consistent with actors prodding them to perceive MS negatively, and to act based on this misperception of the company.

      As for Elop, he is probably another victim of MS' enemies who don't want him to become CEO, because he would most likely be effective. Elop has taken Nokia to profitability amidst the collapsing of the company's old phone lines. Elop's bet on Windows Phone and Asher lines are paying off. Windows Phone on account of Nokia is the fastest growing mobile platform now. Windows Phone on account of Nokia have quadrupled over the last quarter in the US. There is nothing wrong with Elop; he is just a victim of being associated with MS, and is cast in a negative light like MS by MS' enemies.

      MS' enemies sought over 13 years ago to destroy MS by having regulators break up the company. They are now trying to do the same by having shareholders break up and wreck the company. That is what all this commotion is about.
      P. Douglas
      • Profitability???? Nokia???

        History says different.