Steve Ballmer: Can anyone make us so super-excited again?

Steve Ballmer: Can anyone make us so super-excited again?

Summary: Now that Steve Ballmer has stepped down from the board of Microsoft, the tech industry has lost a big character. I for one will miss him.

TOPICS: Microsoft, Windows
Steve Ballmer has presence, that indefinable something that makes him stand out. Image: Microsoft

Steve Ballmer has presence — that indefinable something that says that in a room full of a thousand or so people, he will stand out. You will notice him. He also talks loudly — very loudly and fast. And he smiles — a lot. And his smile is big and broad and all embracing.

When Ballmer smiles in that room full of a thousand people, a fair proportion of those people will smile too.

When I first met Ballmer, it was in a room full of people but only around 20 or 30, not thousands.

It was October 1998 and the-then secretary of state for trade and industry, Peter Mandelson — along with Mike Norris, the chief exec of Computacenter — was there with Ballmer in a small room in Computacenter's London office where the UK government was launching a new initiative.

The speakers were talking in almost hushed tones. It was a small audience, and it was business-like, efficient and completely unremarkable. A typical government press announcement, in fact. Ballmer was standing at the back, keeping quiet and looking attentive.

Then it was his turn to talk. He stepped up to the rostrum, smiled at us and said: "I JUST WANT TO TELL YOU HOW SUPER-EXCITED I AM TO BE HERE TO LAUNCH OF THIS FANTASTIC NEW PROJECT,"  before carrying on for five minutes — all delivered at a volume that could have comfortably filled Carnegie Hall, let alone a small office in London.

At least four or five people, myself included, almost jumped out of our seats with surprise — but he had our full attention.

Norris was smiling, I was smiling, almost everyone was smiling. Even the minister could manage a half-smile. Ballmer was in his element and his element was talking. Talking in a really loud voice.

Another time I saw him was in the US at a large conference. Once again he was in his element spreading the word to a large room and beating the Microsoft drum.

And now he is gone. Well, sort of: last week he stepped down from Microsoft's board (he retired from the role of CEO back in February last year), but still remains Microsoft's largest independent shareholder.

Read this

Steve Ballmer: The Exit Interview

Steve Ballmer: The Exit Interview

Steve Ballmer has had a lasting impact on Microsoft, its partners, customers and competitors. Here’s a look back at his lasting legacy.

So what to make of the Ballmer years? Ted Schandler, at Forrester, is a long-time Microsoft watcher and he pointed out that when Ballmer took over from Bill Gates as CEO in 2000, the company's revenues were $21bn and the business was led by desktop software.

Under Steve's guidance, he says, "Microsoft made massive inroads into enterprise server software and tools while investing, but not really winning, in consumer services and certainly not in mobile devices".

He also pointed out that Microsoft's licensed software business model has suffered, as "Apple, Google, and Amazon have become enterprise suppliers". So even as Microsoft's revenue more than tripled to $73bn in 2012, "things didn't feel good", he says. On balance he thinks it was "a good decision for Steve to step down and pass control to someone else, probably an outsider".

There is little doubt that Ballmer and Gates made a great team. The conventional view is that Gates was the brains of the outfit then Ballmer was the salesman selling the brain's inventions. I am not sure that I hold with it — or at least, not entirely.

Gates and his wife have set themselves the task of saving the world, or at least as much of it as they and their billions can. Ballmer just wants to save a basketball team, the LA Clippers. Some sports fans would say that given the state of the Clippers franchise, the two task are quite comparable in terms of difficulty.

As I have said elsewhere, I have been writing about this business for more than 30 years, which is almost as long as Gates and Ballmer have been around it and in that time we have seen a lot of changes, but one of the biggest, I believe, has been the change in personnel.

Back in the 80s the IT revolution was driven by characters, real people who were personalities who, to some extent, you could empathise with. They have almost all gone — perhaps the last two of that era who are still working in the industry full time are Oracle's Larry Ellison and Michael Dell.

Perhaps the tech world has grown so complex it is difficult for any company to be run by one person; they have been taken over by the many, rather than the few, and most of them are accountants. If that is true it  would be a pity.

So keep going Steve. I will look at your upcoming games at the Clippers and will stand ready to get super-excited all over again.

Read more on Microsoft

Topics: Microsoft, Windows


Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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  • He made me Super Excited...

    ...when he announced he was stepping down.

    He ruined MS in the mobile space. Apple has been raking it in whist MS were left on the side lines.
    • You read my mind...

      ....exactly what I was going to say
      • exactly

        but I had never been exited by him before, I've always taken him like an idiot.
        Jiří Pavelec
    • No...i don't think so.

      MSFT doesn't sit on the sidelines. They copy, wait, and improve the product before releasing it. It's just that they are always 2-3 years late.
      • So

        So THAT's why they're the most successful software company in the world. I get it.
        Buster Friendly
        • The view ......

          through your rear view mirror.

          MS has gone from being on about 95% to 20% of personal computing devices. Some success.

          You are rapidly closing in on Farrel and Owl@%#^$net as the most mindless MS shill here on ZDNet.

          Good job.
          • Sorry

            Sorry but the only thing the counts in business is the financials. Go read them.
            Buster Friendly
          • You just reinforced my point, thank you.

            Financials are retrospective. They say nothing about the future.

            Not much of a visionary, are you? But then again, shills and fan boys never are.
          • I read

            Buster suggest you go back and re read the financials. MS has been showing poor growth for a long time and too many sectors which make a loss. MS becomes more like IBM every day - still a very important company but no longer leading the market like they did.

            Ballmer's lasting legacy. He shows yet again the difference between a good manager and a not so good one is how quickly they learn for their mistakes. MS owned the business mobile phone market and kissed it goodbye when Ballmer laughed at Apples idea people would pay $500 for a phone. He laughed at the tablet for too long and he did not understand that metro is something for a tablet not a PC. What his plan was in buying Nokia for $7.4 billion I have no idea.
          • Was it just momentum?

            Was Ballmer responsible for the growth or was he just there at the right time?

            It seems that the real test is now, can Nadella turn things around?

            We'll never know for sure if someone else could have run MS as well as Ballmer, but we can certainly say Ballmer blew it with respect to mobile and Windows 8. But hey, CEOs get big bucks no matter what they do. Just look at Marissa..
          • So who has SOLD more software?

          • Whoa.. talk about revisionist history...

            Windows is still on 92% of all desktop and laptops. Lumping in phones is inane - they serve different markets. And tablets are just getting started (and are, in case you hadn't heard - are slumping already).

            We're talking over ONE BILLION systems running Windows. That's around one for every seven people in the world.
          • Exactly

            Microsoft is still king on the desktop, it is (by a long stretch) king in the enterprise. .

            Microsoft has actually shown tremendous growth under Ballmer and has diversified their portfolio. They have long stopped being Windows and Office only.

            Missing mobile would seem like a problem, but if you really look at the profitability of that market, it doesn't seem to hurt Microsoft that they did. As for owning the mobile business market, maybe in the US, in the rest of the world, Windows mobile was tiny.

            Bottom line, when Ballmer left, Microsoft was in a much better shape than when he took over from Gates. Nadella will have a tough job surpassing him.

            The buzzwords don't bring in the dough (unless you're Apple, and they seem to be a one trick pony, not a position that actually is sustainable) a diverse product portfolio does.
        • The quick response from the typical AMB crowd reinforces you're POV

          in my opinion.

          Seems they're in a big rush to discredit anyone "pro" Microsoft before anyone has a chance to think differently then the ABMers...
        • WERE successful, Buster

          Ballmer has a big hand in the past tense.
  • Going to miss the Monkey dance

    I don't suppose anyone can talk Mr. Nadella into it?
    • His most memorable moment

      Luckily, future generations will also be able to see it:
  • Steve Ballmer was a great source of entertainment as Microsoft's CEO

    If you miss Mr. Ballmer, my advice is that you move to L.A. (much better weather than the U.K.) and become a fan of the L.A. Clippers, where Mr. Ballmer is the new owner. You can also become a fan of the L.A. Galaxy.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • He could always move the Clippers back to San Diego

      It's rather hard to upstage the Lakers when one's team shares an arena with them. Even Orange County would make more sense than the status quo (one of the more intelligent things Gene Autry did was to move the Angels out of Dodger Stadium to Anaheim).

      And San Diego will support a team that's actually fun to watch. The Chargers proved that when Don Coryell was head coach.
      John L. Ries
  • Loud and obnoxious

    Volume doesn't make up for a lack of content. He never seemed a good fit for a tech company. It's much easier to imagine him in the world of basketball, where yelling and wild gesticulating is commonplace.

    I want to comment on one other thing: You mentioned empathizing with Larry Ellison from Oracle. Seriously? The man would be kicked out of the Evil Villain Club for being a greedy &@$!^%).