When Microsoft co-founder and CEO Bill Gates handed the reins of the tech giant to his longtime comrade and right-hand man Steve Ballmer in January 2000, the path was fairly clear.
After some bumps, the company was finally transitioning into an Internet era, but the PC was assured of a prominent place, and its flagship Windows was still the king of the computing world.
Things are quite different 13 years later, as Ballmer announced his plan to step down in 12 months.
In fact, Ballmer is leaving whoever will eventually take over for him with a substantially weaker and less influential company, which has just made yet another organizational change to head down an uncertain path toward something Microsoft calls being a “devices and services” company.
It’s clearly not a very pretty legacy, mostly due to larger external trends that were impossible to resist, and stubborn management by Ballmer who tried too hard to resist them.
In fact, Ballmer was famous for discounting pretty much all of the products that have defined the recent computing age.
His comments about the iPhone in 2007 to USA Today distill it perfectly: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”
The result of such thinking? The PC industry is tanking, and Microsoft’s longtime partners are struggling in an era where mobile devices – mostly made by others – are flourishing.
Windows 8 was a stab at redefining the company’s operating system for a world sure to be dominated by mobile devices. But, as shown by the tepid response to the software – and to the initial Surface tablet device the company makes itself – Microsoft has a long way to go in that effort.
It’s like that across the Microsoft empire, which too often feels like it is in its sunset.
In phones, Microsoft has thus far decided not to make its own products, casting its lot largely with Nokia, although the company is said to have some phone designs of its own in the back pocket, if not the front. But so far those efforts lag well behind mobile rulers Apple and Google.
In search, Bing has established itself as the only real rival to Google, but Microsoft remains a distant runner-up, without a clear path to significant profits.
Microsoft retains a key spot in core business software, but the dual trends of cloud services and the consumerization of corporate technology mean that many of today’s young companies are forsaking traditional software in favor of options from Google, Salesforce.com and others.
The continued strength in the business sector played to Ballmer’s own abilities and interests, of course. But in an era of fast-moving apps, mobile-first mentalities, and the need for nimbleness and speed over brute force, he had become the wrong leader for Microsoft.
Perhaps that’s why Ballmer recently tried to redefine the company as being “One Microsoft.”
In a memo to employees, Ballmer had written, “we are rallying behind a single strategy as one company – not a collection of divisional strategies,” and that the changes “will enable us to execute even better on our strategy to deliver a family of devices and services that best empower people for the activities they value most and the enterprise extensions and services that are most valuable to business.”
Later, in another memo, titled “Transforming Our Company,” Ballmer added, “as the times change, so must our company.”
Indeed, and just now the other shoe in that sentiment just dropped, perhaps as it had to and as it should have.
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