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Student Technology Day: Steve Ballmer Q&A

There was quite a lot to transcribe out, and many questions asked. Some questions put to Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, include:Will we always need programmers?
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
There was quite a lot to transcribe out, and many questions asked. Some questions put to Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, include:
  • Will we always need programmers?
  • What's Microsoft's input in Facebook and social networking?
  • Does Microsoft have any changes in mind for their lack of "coolness" image in comparison to Google and Apple?
  • What keeps you awake at night?
  • What's Microsoft's view on open-source?
  • Can you see Microsoft introducing multi-touch and Surface to a wider audience?

Because there was quite a lot of text to this, use the arrows at the bottom of this post to go through them, otherwise my editor wouldn't be happy and would kick my arse across the continent.

For the answer to the question that I asked on behalf of Mary-Jo, in regards to the future of Office Live, ahead of the PDC 2008 conference next week, head over to my previous post. Not only that, he discloses some brief information about "Windows in the cloud", which may or may not have any connection to Windows Live, Live Mesh and the future of Office Live. We'll just have to wait and see.

Programmers, developing countries and social networking -->

Will we always need programmers? Excellent question. I think the answer is yes, but not the same kind of programmers that we need today. In a sense, in one of the areas where we've made the least progress in over the last 10-20 years, you still really write the software a lot the same way we wrote it 10-20 years ago. We have loads of people who work for us, as well as a guy who used to work for us who we sold back to him his own ideas, and if they are worth anything, he'll sell them back to us - in the area where we call "intentional programming"

Just like an individual shouldn't have to learn everything about how to operate a computer, it's also true that programmers shouldn't have to write literal step-by-step instructions as you write today in C++ or C#, or Java. You should be able to express intention; be able to describe models and have the models and the intent to actually drive the development of the actual instructions.

I think over time actually things will move in two directions. We will need more and more what I call "deep-system jockey's" - the kind of people who often work in a place like ours, and there'll be more and more people working with the tools in a high-level way but actually need to be an expert in the problem domain - the application domain - as they do in the computers themselves. If you go back and think, scientists became programmers, because there was so much they needed to do just to write the programs which would solve the science. We need to move that frontier for scientists, for financial modellers, for a lot of people, so that we can get more application functionality with fewer programmers.

What is Microsoft's involvement in social networking for the future with social media, especially with the "Facebook thing"? Yeah I'd sort of say there's three primary things going on at Microsoft. Number one, in a sense we have a very popular social network - the question is where do we take it? That's our [Windows Live] Messenger system; it's actually quote "kind of a social network", and if we build on the friends and contacts, and the friends of friends we've already got going, I think there are new ways to apply them. Number two, we've got a great partnership and relationship with Facebook, which we're going to try and do some things with them to extend our technologies into theirs and work closer towards interoperability.

And number three, and actually it might turn out there is a big hole for social networking in business. Today we think about it primarily as really a quote "social thing" and yet colleagues and colleagues and those in other companies with certain expertise; I think most businesses would be better off if everybody had their own social networking site inside the company. And sure, maybe some socialisation that says, "I'm interested in this topic" or there's a group of people ricocheting what's going on with our relationship with HP or Intel - and that would become a little mini-group within that social networking.

So we have some corporate working social networking concepts, the development of IM [instant messaging] to a full-fledged social network and our partnership with Facebook.

Microsoft in developing countries and a 'coolness' image problem? -->

What is Microsoft doing to make technology more available to developing countries? I think it's - I'm going to define a developing country; I know that sounds very presumptuous as the world has defined the developing countries. But I think you could get confused; every country, it's only a question of percentage has three basic populations. A relatively affluent population, an emerging middle class - and I don't mean middle-class as in an English or American middle-class, I really mean being able to buy one major capital good in their life type of thing; and then we have very, very poor people.

The world is roughly 2 billion relatively affluent, 2 billion middle-class and 2 million of those relatively poor and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. And there's a different mix of those people. If you go to Angola and India, the UK and the US, but some of those people will remain in every one of those societies. So rather than thinking about emerging countries and non-emerging countries, I think we have to think the top of the economic pyramid, the middle and the bottom.

The top, with what we're doing every day is pretty obvious. You can buy things, go down to Dixons [now merged as part of Currys:digital], and la blah blahey blah blah. The middle of the economic pyramid the world needs a lot of innovation. How? Let's say someone in India, they'll only be able to come up with in their life $300 for a capital good, and they have to pick every day TV's, PC's, phones, lots of things. There's no real product which has been designed and engineered for that middle class Indian, let alone the charges that you'd have to pay on top of it.

And I think, and we have a whole group at Microsoft focused in on engineering products for what we call that middle bit of the economic pyramid. You wouldn't find a lot of those people in the UK and the US, but you would find those people even in the UK and the US. But the bottom of the economic pyramid - we have to borrow from the shampoo people; the shampoo people worked out that shampoo in poor countries was better to sell it by the drop. It's actually more expensive to buy it by the drop but you can buy it when you need it and don't have to spend masses and it's not a big capital purchase.

But the question is what will technology look like by the drop? We sell it by the drop and that's what a kiosk is. I think we have to improve our support as an industry for that model and maybe develop new technology by the drop; pre-paid cell phones, there's a lot of things that get us that connection, but we're trying to work on all three brackets of the economic pyramid.

Unlike Apple and Google, Microsoft doesn't really have a very cool image. Does Microsoft have any plans to change that? [laughter] It's kinda like an IQ test, basically. What am I supposed to say, no?! [laughter]. What you do in the world is not change. You can say let's go change an image, change the business - products drive image not image drive products. And Google may be a bit of an exception but I don't want to be rude to the competition; they've got a great product in search, no doubt about that. I think we're coming along strong, I think we'll challenge them, but the truth is that the other things they've done have no really gotten very popular, except Gmail.

So it's ironic that the strength of that one service that frankly, they haven't changed in about 7 years. The UI of the search never changes. I do think we could get cool by changing it because at the end of the day, if you think you'll be looking at 10 blue links for the rest of your life - over my dead body will that be the case! I think there are probably better ways to do search than you would do with today. And in the case with Apple, they've made some great products; but they haven't made products for the masses. Apple sort of does products for the elite few to make a lot of money off of that, and we're trying to have a product lined which basically most people want, as opposed to most people who don't want or can't afford.

So we got a bit of a different challenge in trying to appear cool, if you want to sell broad. But on the other hand, it's all about products. We're driving Windows Mobile in a new direction; some of you may have noticed we bought a company called Danger that got a product in the US called the Sidekick - it's sort of one of the more "cooler" phones that are available, if you will. That's not the new search engine by the way - "c-u-i-l", the old fashioned type of cool. So we need the phone, as is key. We have some stuff right now, a lot of what we're doing in search is that we're making sure the things are base to the competition and we've got some pretty killer ideas in which will flip it around; change the experience which we hope people will see as cool.

You'll see the next version of Windows Live - what we're trying to do is mixing some of our properties of social networking before; I hope that drives "cool". At some point we hope we'll drive down the price to afford [a Windows mobile device], that might drive the cool - I mean, cool! It's not cool if you can't own one! They're a little expensive right now, and you might not be able to afford one at the store the day after tomorrow. So, I think at the end of the day, Windows, Windows Mobile - Windows PC's, we have to make, it's our job in conjunction with HP, Dell, blah blah blah blah blahh. We have to make sure the people think the coolest machines are Windows machines, and even also the uncoolest machines.

How many have seen these tiny PC's from Asus? Are they cool? [audience says: "yeah"] It depends on who you are. If you're someone who's only got $400 - what do they charge you over here, around £300 for one of those things? Something like that. If you only have £300, they're pretty cool. If you got a little more than £300, they're probably not very cool! So cool is kind of in the eye of the beholder, and we hope we have something cool for all kinds of different people. We've even got some great products coming in your direction, that are pretty cool today, but we don't have the one thing around here which people rally around here in terms of our current image.

Microsoft on open-source, and is Ballmer kept awake at night? -->

What do you see as your greatest challenge over the coming year, and what keeps you awake at night? [laughter] No! Nothing! Nothing keeps me awake at night. Now I say that; I think the day the leader of an organisation doesn't sleep well - get rid of them, get a new leader, because if you don't have the confidence to address whatever the challenges are, then you probably don't have enough confidence to be successful. Nobody should get cocky or arrogant, and saying that, I've got a list of challenges as long as my arm so to speak. Whatever takes up my background time when I'm working is how we embrace new things, new technologies, new business models. When you get to be a bigger company, big companies have no problem. The problem with smaller companies is that most fail; most startup's fail.

So if you ask me what gets me most worked up, what I keep spending my time thinking about is keeping people within the organisation to embrace them. I'm not saying "kill what you're doing" but embrace change. Whether it's embracing advertising supported software or embracing the idea of Software + Services as additional software; that kind of change occupies most of my worried side.

For the future of technology, how does Microsoft see open-source software and free software and whether it's something they'll be embracing? Software which is written by volunteers - nothing is really free in life, but software which is written by volunteers as opposed to commercial companies is here to stay. It's a fact of life. We want most people using their free software on Windows that then competes with other free software, like Linux - we want you to choose Windows [laughter]. It's a fact of life so we have to compete, we'll have to embrace the notions of this, and if you ask me if we can afford to give all our software for free - no. That would be inconsistent with all of the umpteen thousands of people who work for us.

Some of our software may appear free - essentially we take advertisement fees for you who use it. It may appear free to the consumer but at the end of the day, there'll be many things we do which we'll charge for. With that said, there will be increasing software that we produce and make available for free in a variety of different ways; we've got that with Internet Explorer, and we're even producing things and along side that the source code for in some cases. After that we're going to have to consider as commercial products not just how to embrace free products but technology components - people are embracing what comes from open-source and through different licenses such as the GPL licences. So we're going to compete and we're going to upgrade, we're going to embrace - y'know it's just a fact of life but the whole world isn't going to go for software that's free.

Things seem to be shifting towards things on the web such as Office Live and Google Docs - can you foresee a time where a whole operating system does all its processing externally? Yeah I don't see the world moving towards client computing - zero, nada, nada! I hope that Google believes in it, really, they might not say so but we believe it. It's just a question of which client you believe in. Google doesn't even believe in running lots of client code - Firefox, do they believe in thin client computing? They don't seem to be extending with their own blah blah blah blah blah! Adobe the same in Flash and a lot of the other. If we start Windows in the browser and with .NET, it'll be more blah blah blah blah blah!

It turns out we may disagree on the implementation, but everybody agrees, although not always on the principle. So the question is will the world be centralised? I think everyone's on board with balanced computation where servers are in the clouds and clients - it's just we all believe in it differently. All of the Office Live code will run on the server, and that works a conclusion which you are allowed to draw! [laughter]. I don't think any instance of the computation of Office Live will run on the client, whether it's a rich client or through the browser, or Windows or some combination. I think that's the case. Think about phones. They're moving towards thicker clients - they were thin, but it turns out the whole world thinks phones should be smarter and thicker. I think people don't want to do is work hard to take care of.

Microsoft on the credit crunch, and India's impact on Microsoft -->

How is Microsoft by the global credit crunch? Everybody's affected by the credit crisis; I don't know yet, really, I don't know what the crisis will be. Will our revenue be less than what I thought our revenue would be? Probably! We make around 4% of our revenue from financial services - if there's fewer customers to call... So yeah, we've got to believe the revenue will be impacted to some degree. We've just finished our financial quarter so I can't really say too much. Yes, of course, we will be affected.

The question worth asking is, will it stop us investing in our future? No, we're going to invest in our future. We make take a look - we were planning on expanding our investment base by 17% and depending on what everything looks like, we'll keep doing 17, maybe 14 [percent] but the fact is we're not contracting in top economical climes. We're fortunate to be profitable enough to continue to invest for the future.

What's the importance of information security? It's a big issue - I'm glad to hear it's big. A lot of places right now, because they haven't been many famous virus attacks lately - it seems people today are less focused on security today than they were before.

How important is the Indian workforce to Microsoft; how important is the Indian market, and if the Indian workforce dried up, where would Microsoft go next? Very, a little less than very, and I really don't know! [laughter] 50% of the computer science graduates in the world graduate in India and China. So if anyone tells you they're in the computing industry and they don't have the strategy to employ you... it doesn't matter whether you're in India or China, they help people emigrate to there, blah blah blah blah blahh. But if you think you can run a technology business without tapping into that talent pool, you are wrong! So "very" to the first question.

Second, how important is the market? The market in India is still relatively small in comparison to the population. This year there will be around 7 or 8 million computers if I remember off the top of my head,  for purchase in India - just to give you a sense, China is around the same population and China will have about 48 million computers to 7 for India. The UK off the top of my head would be probably 15-16 million PC's. So in terms of consumption in these places are emerging through some of the others.

What would we do if we couldn't get engineers from India? I would say we'd be - the entire world would be less "good off" if we took such a high number of computer scientists off the table.

How do you see Microsoft introducing multi-touch and Surface to everyone for wider availability? Microsoft, I know it's weird, but most of our business is not in the enterprise. That's actually a small part of our business. Now, how do we get people to adopt technologies is still a big question. If you let me take Microsoft Office. About a third of Microsoft Office goes into the enterprise, about 40% goes into consumers and small home offices and the rest goes to schools. So most of Microsoft Office is bought by consumers and students - so the real question is, how do we make these things more popular to consumers and student market?

We have to drive price, and we've got to have the retail environment better for trying out new things. Retail is not a great place to try new things, but a Tablet - you want to try a Tablet, and you want to write on it and see it. You don't just want to go out and get one on mail order; so we've got our work cut out for us on this thing.

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