Microsoft needs its own Steve Jobs

Ballmer

Jon Honeyball looks back at the stagnant culture of Ballmer's Microsoft

The unimaginable has happened: Steve Ballmer has thrown in the towel and announced that he’s going to leave.

It will be some time over the next 12 months, depending upon how quickly an appropriate successor can be found.

As boss of the company, Ballmer must ultimately take responsibility for everything Microsoft does. However, only a fool would assume that he was party to every single decision, every small choice that could have made the difference between success and failure.

Bill Gates did have that obsessive attention to detail, and so it would be easy – too easy – to suggest that Bill was strong where Ballmer was weak. That would be very wrong.

Simpler times

Back in the 1990s, I myself knew every Microsoft product, and almost without exception knew it inside out: Exchange Server, SQL Server, Windows Server, Office, the Windows desktop and all the development tools.

As boss of the company, Ballmer must ultimately take responsibility for everything Microsoft does

This was the whole extent of the company’s product offering back then (if you ignore a few esoteric oddities, such as the mainframe terminal application). So Bill could spend half a day looking at every major product group every single week, and retain a detailed and intimate view of what was happening.

During the noughties, there was a veritable explosion of products and SKUs (stock keeping units, that is, versions of products). It was no longer possible to remain wise about the entire product set. Indeed, it became hard enough even to remember everything on offer and what it did, let alone to have any competency in using it.

And if it was hard for me, it would have been near impossible for the historically thin layer of upper management inside Microsoft. This is why the firm became fat and top-heavy during this time: too many managers, too many programs, too much stuff going on.

With this fatness came slowness and lethargy, and an almost terrifying momentum from both the Windows and Office groups. Despite all their best efforts at screwing things up (such as XP Home lacking any default security features, the Longhorn disasters, Office 2007 for Mac having no macro language), both groups could still steamroller through the decade on sheer inertial force – and all the while, Ballmer was in the captain’s chair, steering this supertanker as it expanded, embraced and extended.

New markets

No matter that it kept coming late to every new market niche, the sheer momentum of the beast was enough to drag everyone onboard in the end. After all, all you needed was Office Plus Five. This quasi-religious belief made it almost impossible to imagine a world in which Office wasn’t central to the lives of computer users...

But before you could shout “pirates at 10 o’clock”, the Good Ship Microsoft had been boarded and found itself aground in shallow water. Along came Google, which sucked all the revenue out of search and advertising. Along came Amazon, which did the same to e-commerce.

And then Facebook stuck it to the company in the person-to-person communications arena. Finally, along came that pesky Apple and turned the whole mobile and tablet world on its head (all the better to shake all the money out of its pockets).

Suddenly, it became horribly clear that Microsoft’s soft, lazy and risk-averse middle management had been believing their own hype for one year too many, and had seriously dropped the ball. No amount of panic work on things such as Windows Phone and Windows 8 could persuade the public that Microsoft was still in charge, that it was leading from the front.