Pour one out for Steve Ballmer

Pour one out for Steve Ballmer

Summary: Microsoft's longtime chief executive announces he'll step down in a year. My brief thoughts on his tenure.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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Steve Ballmer at CES 2010. (Photo courtesy Microsoft)

He was Microsoft's best salesman, from almost day one.

Unlike Apple's attractive wares, Microsoft never made products that visually sold themselves. They were functional, like a concrete highway or a water main. They were rarely, as the technology press so often likes to say, "sexy."

If Bill Gates was Microsoft's brain, Steve Ballmer was its mouth. And try like hell to move product he did. From his early days shouting at you on your couch (in, let's admit, a blazer that looked cut from said couch) to the later years when he took the stage at the Consumer Electronics Show as an elder statesman, clad in his signature oxblood sweater, to convince a cynical, youthful crowd that he was was worth paying attention to—even when he didn't have a "next big thing" to show off.

But what happens when people stop listening? Over the last decade, that's exactly what's happened. Ballmer's infectious optimism grew benign with investors and the public as he mistakenly laughed off Apple's iPhone in 2007, meekly conceded his company's mobile operating system "screw-ups" years after the rest of the industry did and, through it all, allowed fiefdoms to metastasize in his company with a corporate organizational scheme that remained largely the same from 2005 to 2013, seemingly a century at the speed at which the technology industry operates.

There's no doubt that Ballmer made strategic missteps, some of them critical to his company's success. (You could argue that in several cases he didn't make any strategic steps at all.) But he also served, until today's announcement of his retirement, as a rock of stability at a large company continually threatened by up-and-comers.

That Microsoft has been replaced by Apple as the world's most valuable technology company illustrates Ballmer's failings. That Microsoft remains the fourth most valuable company of any kind 38 years after its founding—and 13 years after founder Bill Gates handed over the reins—demonstrates that Ballmer has kept the Good Ship Gates running for far more smoothly than he's credited.

But his greatest asset may have been his undoing: trying to sell his own employees optimism for the future when they needed instead to soberly address the reality of their failings, change what enabled them, and move on.

Until the very end: "The strategy we have generated is first class," he wrote to employees in a memo announcing his retirement today. "Our new organization, which is centered on functions and engineering areas, is right for the opportunities and challenges ahead." Even without an heir apparent.

Topic: Microsoft

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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17 comments
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  • Too late...

    Too late…
    He’s already wrecked the company…
    Microsoft’s Downfall: Inside the Executive E-mails and Cannibalistic Culture That Felled a Tech Giant
    http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2012/07/microsoft-downfall-emails-steve-ballmer
    William Donelson
    • Vanity Fair

      That's where I go for tech analysis, too. Wow.
      WebSiteManager
      • To be fair, Vanity Fair is regularly excellent.

        But you'll have to sift through a great deal of Kennedy retrospectives before you find anything about a technology company. So!
        andrew.nusca
    • That was the best you could come up with?

      Vanity Fair?

      Which is why I come to ZDNet for automobile repair advice.
      John Zern
  • Ballmer's legacy

    Ballmer's was with Microsoft for a very long time and he made great contributions towards its success.
    OwlllllllNet
  • It is very intresting news

    I've beed professional windows applications developer for last 20 years and now I am reading this news in Firefox under CentOS, and develop integration framework between JavaScript and iOS in MacOS X on my second PC.

    Oh yes, where is my Windows PC? It is actually at home my son is playing computer games on it while being on summer holidays.
    Nikolayev
  • bill

    MS has not been the same without Bill Gates. Balmer just stabilize / destabilise MS under his helm depending how you see it. History will show how Windows 8 and surface RT will reflect on Balmer
    ThinkFairer8
  • A quote from Thomas J. Watson, Sr., former and first CEO of IBM:

    ''It is harder to keep a business great than it is to build it.''

    "DINOSAURS? They were a trio of the biggest, most fearsome companies on earth. Here's how earnest executives managed them into historic decline."
    http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1993/05/03/77809/index.htm

    P.S. Also posted this quote on one of Mary Jo's blogs, but it seemed fitting here as well. Nice job, Andrew.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
  • Ballmer, I wish you the best of luck

    Thank you for providing me with fantastic value for all these years. I've tried the competition and always ended up coming back to Microsoft because you guys understand how to make fantastic products.

    Cheers Steve, good luck in the future. Thanks again.
    toddbottom3
    • Thanks!

      .... for the sarcasm :)

      Had me puzzled for a couple of seconds!
      harvey_rabbit
      • Sarcasm? I wasn't being sarcastic

        Do you have proof to deny what I've written?
        toddbottom3
      • good one

        U are Mike Cox in the making .. Cheers
        ThinkFairer8
    • BLAH, BLAH,

      BLAH, BLAH, BLAH!
      orandy
  • Pour one out for Steve Ballmer

    I don't remember people not listening to Microsoft. I've listened to them for years and its helped my career tremendously. Everyone at ZDNet has been listening to them because there sure are a lot of stories about them good or bad. Microsoft has done some remarkable work with their products during Steve Ballmer's tenure. I wish him the best of luck in the future.
    Loverock-Davidson
  • Good News Everyone!

    There's really nothing surprising about this at all for anyone who's been paying attention to the slow motion disaster during the last two years of Windows 8/Windows RT/Metro UI/Surface/Apps Store/Xbox One. Flipping a penny would have yielded better decision making than Ballmer because a penny would have been right at least half the time.

    The only surprising thing is that the magnitude of this disaster must be known internally to be so much greater than what is known externally that the board was actually forced to act.

    Unfortunately, for Microsoft to have any chance at a good long term future, Ballmer needs to leave immediately rather than a year from now. In today's extremely fast paced tech world, a year of aimless drifting for a company like Microsoft is practically an eternity in dog years.
    Asok Smith
    • I would disagree with you.

      You appear to be talking from a strong bias, as has not Steve Ballmer managed to make billions each quarter, as other companies around them close shop?

      He has grown 16 product lines to billion dollar product line, yet you gloss over that and highlight his failures.

      Under Job's tenure, Apple failed in the server business, and discontinued Xserver, yet should we not mention that when talking Apple?

      As you can see, when viewed from a single perspective, you do not see everything that has actually transpired.
      John Zern
  • Steve not miss but Connie yes

    While I think not many will miss Mr. Ballmer I do think many will miss his kind wife Connie seen here http://dailyentertainmentnews.com/?p=14842
    Miriam De Hernandez