back to article Steve Ballmer at 11: A Microsoft power play too far?

Steve Ballmer's anniversary as Microsoft CEO has arrived with a paradox. In the history of Microsoft, no chief executive has wielded so much power. Ballmer is essentially responsible for $40bn in sales, running three of Microsoft's five business units: the Office business applications unit, Entertainment and Devices, and – as …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A great second in command?

    Didn't Apple once have a great second in command too?

  2. Robert E A Harvey

    Soap opera

    A thoughtful, well researched, and insightful piece about what might have been, or how things could have been otherwise.

    And you know what? I don't care. When companies get so big (and I work for another $MEGACORP) the decisions become divorced from the product, customers, and workforce. People start to see the abstract or intangible as real, and the real as mere 'detail'.

    It becomes - as so eloquently reported here - about personalities. So much management effort expended on everything but the product. This is why Vista was such a dog, Phone7 is a lash-up, and security is never good enough.

    Ho hum and goodnight. I don't care.

    1. Magnus_Pym

      Internal vs External, People vs Products

      I agree. I think this phrase sums up a lot of what is wrong at Microsoft.

      "and prevent Azure from cannibalizing the licensing business of products like SQL and Windows Server."

      It shows that everybody is worried about their own little bit of the kingdom. They work very hard at protecting what they see as their turf. They are so busy looking inwards at who is jostling them for position in the court of king Ballmer that they don't notice kingdom is under attack from outside and is losing territory on all fronts. The enemy at the gates. (see the accidental pun there) but no-one is looking.

      1. MyHeadIsSpinning
        Gates Horns

        Product divisions and infighting

        Since Microsoft is broken down into product divisions, it would be expected that there would be competition between the divisions as each division is effectively encouraged to compete with the other.

        I'm also reminded of the article 'Knock, Knock, Nokia's Heavy Fall...' which was highlighted on El Reg a while ago.

  3. JDX Gold badge

    sliding doors

    I wonder where we'd be if they hadn't deliberately stopped at IE6, but continued work:

    a)to push non-standard tech they thought was cool for interop with Windows/Office

    b)going the IE9 route.

  4. Flash_Penguin

    Proof reading?

    Maybe even spell check?

    Go on, try out those other strange buttons on the toolbar....

  5. TheOpsMgr

    How many #fails?

    So in summary...

    Vista = #Fail

    WinMo = #Fail

    No IE development = #Fail

    No tablet strategy = #Fail

    And the guy is still there?

    1. Alastair 7

      I know Ballmer-bashing is fun

      But, as the article itself states:

      "Microsoft remains a $62bn company that's been reporting record levels of growth."

      That's why he's still there.

    2. mraak


      Yawn, what about zzzune? Or Kin?

      1. Paul M 1


        "Microsoft remains a $62bn company that's been reporting record levels of growth."

        But that's in spite of Balmer, not because of him.

        1. Bilgepipe
          Gates Horns


          "Microsoft remains a $62bn company that's been reporting record levels of growth."

          Momentum, from the Windows/Office lock-in that made Microsoft in the first place.

          A moving oil tanker doesn't necessarily have a captain at the helm.

          Where's the Evil Ballmer icon?

      2. Jimbo in Thailand
        Thumb Down

        Ballmer has proven himself to be an effing buffoon time & time again

        That Microsoft is doing well spite of Ballmer, not because of him. As someone already pointed out, where would M$ be today had they been under competent leadership? Ballmer's long history of having eyes wide shut to emerging trends and the many incomprehensible misfires on product developments leaves no doubt as to his incompetence. The real question is when will Microsoft's board finally wise up and boot this effing moron??!!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ballmer Ballmer Ballmer

    While he isn't without faults, who else can get things right again.

    Just look at the crapfest that groove stuff made out of Office, or having Ribbon remove all the classic menus... it was the first time I heard user dislike a newer version of office.

    As for Amitabh Srivastavam; there seem to be lots of these guys from India that are brilliant, unfortunately they create complexity in the software so that it ends up requiring brilliance to make it go.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    I think MS do have a problem for the future

    Talking to a lot of people 25 or under and there really is a feeling that microsoft is regarded as uncool. They resist the idea of Microsoft tablets and phones and seem to resent that unless you are technically minded enough to do linux or rich enough to do apple you have no choice. About the only thing where that doesnt seem to be the case is the xbox product line. But apart from that people of all ages no longer look to microsoft for innovation, whilst microsoft has its core markets outside of those markets people seem to resist as much as they can.

    I really think for many people they see microsoft as a company that just moves boxes of windows and office ad use all sorts of stupid and annoying tricks to force people to upgrade. There is an air of inevitability about upgrading. Its just a pity that apple are so damn expensive otherwise they could maybe make a move here or even better just let people buy the OS, although that will never happen. I'd love to see linux make it big on the desktop but too many times people have declared "desktop Linux is here" and its been too complicated for most or just as unreliable as windows.

    I actually think now more than ever if the right technology would come forward the grip MS has on the desktop could be loosened and its the first time really since pre windows 95 IMO. Don't get me wrong I am not anti microsoft it might not be my first choice for certain things but as a desktop OS windows 7 is pretty good in general, the xbox is a decent console and whilst openoffice is better than ever before there are still places its totally outclassed by office.

  8. Stu 18

    they should seriously look at splitting the company up

    And frankly stop waisting money on cloud 9.

    Office has taken a huge hit and ribbon and the disconnect with the earlier versions may have been the tipping point for eventual undoing of the monopoly.

    development stuff is still very good

    Servers have been suffering the feature creap of desktop software with complexity breeding complexity. The common practise of seperating out services into their own virtual server sandbox says volumes about software that sprays like a male cat - a bit of stink everywhere.

    The OS should be gutted with the original win api seperated into a sandbox to run historic apps and the replacment jetsonning all the turgid work arounds, joints and other backwards compatibility crap.

    Sack all the marketing people, they are not very good at it. rebuild the websites so that they work or outsource it. Focus on making a few things well instead of lots of things poorly.

    1. Viv

      Sandbox Windows!

      That is a stroke of genius right there, Sandbox windows, how come we never thought of that before?

  9. thecakeis(not)alie


    Just resign already!

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    not departing?

    I wouldn't be so sure that they won't get rid of him... They don't have that many more chances to make such big mistakes, and there is really no great success stories under his command to offset the collection of bad decisions. The board doesn't want to become the next Nokia and they surely have a very clear understanding of the risk they face. Lastly, there is precedence of getting rid of prominent figure heads of giant companies in the last couple of years.

    I think he's good at talking and probably execution as well - but a leader of a company like that needs to be a (practical) visionary (and not be tempted to micro-manage the impossibly large).

    1. kissingthecarpet
      Gates Horns

      Their websites really are a bit crap

      when you consider the amount of cash they've got to spend. None of their web pages have human-readable names, & the number of times I've clicked on links that don't work or something else rubbish is uncountable. They seem to delight in making stuff hard to find(MS' attitude to the net is all wrong - they don't 'get' it).

      Their one good product is Visual Studio, probably because they know that developers wouldn't stand for the shit sandwich everyone else gets served, & would go elsewhere.

      Ballmer comes across like a Dad at a teenage party, although Dad was a teen once & in theory knows all they do and more etc, he seems out of touch & past it. Except instead of dancing embarassingly, he throws chairs & sweats a lot.

      1. eswan


        > Except instead of dancing embarassingly, he throws chairs & sweats a lot.

        Instead of?

  11. Anonymous Coward


    "Azure is making no meaningful money for Microsoft, and the vast majority of Microsoft's cloud push is concentrated on convincing people to use hosted versions of Exchange instead of Google's Gmail or Lotus Notes."

    make that "...convincing people to use hosted versions of Exchange instead of Google's Gmail or Lotus Notes or Exchange in-house"

    It's no secret that Microsoft has been cannibalizing its licensing revenue to win hosting business - in many cases pretty much giving away the licensing. Nice one Steve, stash the dead raccoon under Bob's porch and then throw him under the bus for it.

    Make no mistake, Steve's "aggressive targets" translates to one thing - layoffs. If there is one thing an exec like Steve would sell his mother for it's to protect his bonus... do you really think he'll have any other tricks up his sleeve for 2011?

  12. elreg subscriber

    No hope for Microsoft and it is not Ballmer's fault

    The internal structure of the company is ossified. Too many layers of management, too much politics and back-stabbing.

    The developers! developers! developers! developers! have gone elsewhere. They prefer more exciting platforms and frameworks to work on (mobile apps on android and iphone, open-source frameworks like Ruby-on-Rails, etc.)

    The software is too bloated and complex from years of legacy-preservation and patching upon patching. At this stage the only real hope is to rewrite it from scratch.

    Some of the biggest cash cows like MS-Office are being cannibalized by free alternatives (Open Office) and web apps like google docs.

    The core cash cow (Windows) is being marginalized, because, let's face it, today the more relevant "OS" on the desktop or smart-phone, is made up of the network and the browser. Nobody cares what the underlying OS is. Plus, the underlying OS on the other side (the server) is mostly Linux (Google, Facebook, The Reg, etc.)

    The best technical employees have long moved on. When you have 98% of the market and inferior offerings, it is very hard to grow, and when there's no growth, there's no hope for the pawns via stock options.

    It is not Balmer's fault really. There's no one, not even Harry Potter who can bring about the transformation miracle after being dealt such cards. It is going to be a slow and very long decline to complete irrelevancy.

    Tux because I haven't felt the need to use any of their products for 16 years now.

  13. JaitcH

    Too big to fire? Building job security.

    I guess the increasing criticism of Balmer, both within and without MS, makes him feel vulnerable so he is building a little insurance.

  14. deadlockvictim Silver badge

    Bloat (as incorporated by Mr. Ballmer)

    Ballmer is Nature's way of bringing the mighty down to size. He didn't bring Microsoft to the current size, he was just someone who was in the right place at the right time — rather like the mediocre prince who inherits the throne from a brilliant parent.

    Right now, Apple and Google are in the ascendent and Microsoft the descendent. Soon enough, surely, Steve Jobs will be forced out (again) of Apple and her world will (again) almost implode. Who can tell the fates of these commercial kindoms in 10 years' time.

    The Cloud might yet succeed and leave Microsoft as a footnote in history. To all the naysayers, ask people who remember the 70s if they honestly thought that software, rather than hardware, was the way forward and if there would be a computer in (almost) every house within 20 years.

  15. Adam Trickett

    Ballmer is dead man walking

    Ballmer is an idiot and has done a great deal of damage to Microsoft.

    Microsoft has two advantages:

    1) A solid core monopoly that they can and have used to crush competitors.

    2) Lame competitors that have gifted MS victories when the monopoly didn't work.

    Whatever you think of Bill G, when he was in charge when they had a good run of weak or inept competitors and used/abused their monopoly quite well.

    You can't blame Ballmer for lack of innovation, it's never been a Microsoft strong point. You also can't blame Ballmer for Apple, Linux or Google, it's not Ballmer's fault that they now face strong competition.

    However you can blame him for not using the monopoly and not driving on delivery. Vista was years to late and was re-written so many times that it's now called 7. The Zune, phone, tablet and net-book strategy has been a dismal failure, not only did they fail to deliver but they gave up at the sign of resistance - this is not the MS of old.

    MS has just got "fat and lazy", they now just rely on the monopoly and unless they do something radical will fade into insignificance with the fat-client desktop PC...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There's a third advantage

      Mountains and mountains of cash.

      Microsoft can continue to survive a while yet by buying in innovation.

      In the long term they need to try diversifying their brands - Xbox is 'cool' because it is Xbox first, Microsoft very much second. The brand was allowed to develop at arm's length from the main Microsoft business, but had access to the company's muscle and money. It looks like Bing is taking much the same approach.

      And Microsoft has plenty of world-class researchers, it now needs to work out how to get their technologies into the market without necessarily being sold as 'Microsoft...' or 'Office...'

  16. frank ly

    Unpaid overtime I assume

    "... spans business units and subsidiaries and that sees people working up to 20 hour days, seven days a week."

    They'll be doing lots of good quality work and making some really good decisions then.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "Microsoft is now in a state of triage"

    If Ballmer does not have the vision of what the next "must have" product will be, he should be shown the door.

    Dismissing iPhone and iPad was a bad mistake and it has cost Microsoft.

    1. chr0m4t1c

      To be fair

      The original iPhone looked as if it would be a (pretty) footnote in phone history, so I'd say that was a forgiveable mistake - he wasn't the only person to get that wrong.

      Dismissing the iPad is much less forgiveable, seeing how the iPhone ended up as such of a benchmark product in the phone arena despite offering nothing particularly new or innovative should have set alarm bells ringing that there was a good chance they would do the same in the tablet marketplace too.

      Of course his real problem at the moment is the various divisions preventing each other from developing decent products in case they end up taking sales from each other (e.g. Windows tablets will have to run a cut-down W7 instead of a more suitable beefed up WM7 or even allow the manufacturers to decide for themselves).

      *That* is what he needs to sort out, they either all need to work together for the whole company or be sold off; none of his competitors are worrying about product A taking sales from product B because they still get the customer's money.

  18. The Fuzzy Wotnot

    Is it me or is Steve Ballmer a muppet?

    Despite my personal feelings, I think the guy is a complete prat, the DelBoy of Silicon Valley, he must be doing something right to keep a company like MS going.

  19. Bilgepipe

    Flight Simulator

    Ballmer should have been summarily kicked out when he scrapped Flight Simulator.

  20. Dibbles
    Thumb Up

    Good piece

    - well researched, well written.

    For what it's worth, I would agree heavily with a lot of what's been written by previous posters.

    - There is too much bloat - the layers of middle management are pretty frightening in their volume, and when it comes to putting one's finger on what value, precisely, a specific level 65-67 manager is adding to any process or product, it's nigh-on impossible.

    - While it's understandable in such a behemoth of a company, the processes and frameworks for success are rigidly defined. Mid Year Review is important in deciding direction for the next 6 months, and setting up objectives for the following year, but it essentially means that nothing else is done for about 6 weeks. And come June-August, the place again shuts down to assess itself and its success.

    - And the horse-trading and petty in-fighting continues. Xbox wants to be free to decide its own destiny; Windows and Office don't see why they should subsidize everyone else; nobody actually wants to do MSN/ Windows Live properly; product managers think they know best; marketers want to do their thing. It's all a bunch of schoolkids sitting around stealing blocks off each other, and it's pathetic.

    Ultimately, there is a hugely strong base there, despite the self-delusion (saying that Vista was terribly bad was verboten until last year; likewise, Live Search was "the best search engine out there") there are enough solid products and enough innovation and development to generate this strong growth. But the seeds are surely there for it all to come crumbling down, leaving MS a shell of itself, churning out Windows 9 to an uninterested public, margins sliced razor-thin by the competition.

  21. Philippe

    A strategy but no future because the future has changed.

    Microsoft has reached a point where they have a strategy, (.net, silverlight, visual studio, xna),

    a massive market share, and plenty of cash.

    This sounds great but nobody cares any longer because the PC era is over and the brand is no longer cool.

    They are exactly like Nokia (no wonder execs move from one to the other..)

    they have a strategy QT everywhere, massive market share, plenty of cash.

    This sounds great but nobody cares any longer because the dumbphone era is over and the brand is no longer cool.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Balmer=Bad Muglia=Good

    Bob was a great guy, he understood the technology, and never sold out on S&T. Balmer on the other hand is an accountant, who clearly doesn't understand technology, and has made nothing but mistakes since he took the reins from Gates (who by the way *did* get the tech stuff).

    And as far as restructuring to prevent cannibalization, that just shows that despite being full of MBAs MS still doesn't understand economics either. SaaS is commoditzation, and it will happen. If MS doesn't embrace it, the competition will. So yes: you will not make as much money on S&T, but then again, did you really every think that people would keep buying the same stuff over-and-over anyway?

    News flash for economists and MBAs of the world: Commoditzation happens. Embrace it or be swept aside.

  23. Marvin the Martian
    Paris Hilton

    Bing? Half-a-billion WHAT?

    "Sales of Bing are in the half a billion range"? But of what units? Zimbabwe dollars? Bytes?

  24. asdf

    no way no how

    Everything is just fine in M$ land. Windows 8 will be the biggest thing ever and watch out iPhone Win 7 mobile will rock you. Even the Zune was the best music player on the market. M$ is here to stay for many decades more or at least until retirement.


    Another scared MSCE too stupid to learn *nix or even the command line. Point and click, point and click.


    1. asdf


      fat fingered MCSE. MCSE still largely means GUI only user lol.

  25. gimbal

    "[Bing is] still the baby of the company, with sales in the half-billion range"

    Good Guiness, what a fine monstrosity we've made.

    A round for ... 1/12 the entire world....

    Hey, but at least, it's a monstrosity residing in a free-market economy - not without present, and *effective* competition, either.

    ...and it may be a little more than a spectator's sport, though. I mean, really....

    A round for the whole room, at least.

  26. Robert E A Harvey
    Paris Hilton


    I recall a double MSCE, married to another MSCE, who had to ring her dad to find out how to copy a file from a floppy disk to a hard disk....

  27. Jean-Luc

    Q: how do you get to be the second biggest IT company in the world?

    A: start at first place and put Steve in charge.

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