Ballmer makes it to year 11 as Microsoft CEO

Eleven years ago today, January 13, 2000, Steve Ballmer was appointed CEO of Microsoft. Increasingly, many, including me, are wondering how many more years he'll continue in that role.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Eleven years ago today, January 13, 2000, Steve Ballmer was appointed CEO of Microsoft.

Increasingly, many, including me, are wondering how many more years he'll continue in that role.

There are more than a few shareholders and Microsoft employees who want Ballmer tossed. After his seeming disagreement over future direction with Server and Tools President Bob Muglia -- who announced this week he is leaving the company after 23 years -- I've heard from even more folks carping for Ballmer to go. If Ballmer won't go gracefully, they say, the Microsoft board should do what AMD's board just did to former CEO Dirk Meyer and force Ballmer out.

I have said on previous occasions that -- despite the fact that I've been on the Ballmer-interview blacklist for more than 15 years -- I still considered him the best person for the Microsoft CEO job. And last we heard from Ballmer on the topic of his CEO stewardship plans, two-plus years ago, Microsoft's CEO made it clear that he had no plans to step down voluntarily until 2018 or so, when his youngest son was off to college.

Yes, Microsoft's stock price is stagnating. But the company is still managing to break profit records (as much by trimming costs, these days, as via sales of new products), in spite of imminent-demise predictions by various analysts and company watchers.

The question -- for me -- always comes back to whether there is there someone who could do a better job than Ballmer leading Microsoft? I'd say if the pool of candidates is restricted to current Microsoft management, the answer is no. (Those calling for Bill Gates to return as Microsoft CEO need to give up that pipe dream. Gates has moved on, though he remains chair of the Microsoft board.) Because of the dismal record that outsiders have at succeeding and lasting at Microsoft, I'd say a non-Softie, as appealing as that may sound from a new-blood perspective, has a low likelihood of making it for long as Redmond's CEO.

Ballmer has been with the company 30 years and in the last few, molded Microsoft to be more in his image. Most of the "Gates guys" -- the techie managers favored by BillG -- are gone now, replaced by the MBA types favored by SteveB. (One exception is Steven Sinofsky, the President of Windows, who was a Gates guy. Supposedly, he also is one of Ballmer's chosen, and can seemingly do little wrong in Ballmer's eyes.)

AMD's Meyer supposedly was forced out by the board because he refused to get with the mobile program. According to reports, he wouldn't accelerate AMD's plans to build new chips for mobile devices, despite the fact he knew that's what the company needed to do.

Ballmer also has been sluggish in pushing Microsoft to get with the mobile program. The company nearly missed the window of opportunity in the smartphone space. And the jury is still out as to whether Windows Phone 7 will be able to gain lost ground quickly enough to keep the Softies in the smartphone race.

The same thing is threatening to happen in the slate/tablet market. Ballmer is continuing to champion publicly the idea that Windows 7 is a great slate/tablet operating system. But unless Microsoft has some secret -- like an interim Windows release with a touch-centric interface -- up its sleeve before Windows 8, Microsoft is not going to be able to provide an operating system to its partners that will enable them to create slates that can compete battery-wise, dimension-wise and price-wise with the iPad and Galaxy Tablets. not to mention the horde of other coming Android slate/tablets.

Ballmer hinted in his "goodbye BobMu" note that he felt the Server & Tools Business needed new management to make Microsoft more competitive in the cloud. I'm curious to see who Ballmer thinks will be more aggressive in that space, whether it be another Softie or an outsider. Microsoft execs admitted last year that the company's message that users could have it all -- public cloud, private cloud and/or hybrid -- was confusing, and that they planned a concerted effort to lead with the cloud. (Hence, the "We're All In" campaign.) Since then, Microsoft's been pushing its partners and customers full-speed-ahead toward the cloud.

When a company is as big as Microsoft, it takes time to turn the ship. But it shouldn't take so long to correct an off-guided product course. Why didn't Microsoft do a reset on its smartphone until 2009, when it was clearly going down the wrong path? Why was the Kin allowed to launch? Why does management think it is OK to let tablets and slates eat into PC demand until 2012 or later, when Microsoft finally will be ready with a slate-optimized operating system?

A changing of the guard, even a sweeping one like has been happening at Microsoft for the past couple of years, with the departures of Bob Muglia, Ray Ozzie, Robbie Bach, Stephen Elop, Jeff Raikes and Kevin Johnson, doesn't necessarily mean, to me, that Ballmer needs to go. Constant reorgs are a way of life at Microsoft, and not everyone agrees with the new world order (especially those who believe they are deserving of a guaranteed spot as Microsoft's CEO).

What I find more worrisome is the brain drain happening at the mid-management and technical management levels of the company, with departures of folks like Brad Abrams, Chris Wilson, Doug Purdy, Brad Lovering, Ian Ellison-Taylor, etc. These individuals are the ones with institutional knowledge and staff loyalties that are hard to replace, and whose expertise is now benefiting Microsoft's foremost competitors. That growing list of departures has started to give me pause and make me question my Ballmer backing....

I am not expecting Microsoft's board to hand Ballmer his walking papers any time soon. But I'm wondering already if the Board will have more strenuous questions for SteveB -- and maybe more bonus cuts -- for Ballmer this year when evaluation time comes around, if not before.

Do you think Ballmer is going to hang on until 2018 as CEO? Should he?

Editorial standards