06 September 2013

On Steve Ballmer And His Retirement From The Microsoft CEO Spotlight

Microsoft Metro Logo

For 15 years of the 20 years I have avidly MSFT-Watched, Microsoft has always got some of the most critical and glooming news and journalism coverage. It all started as soon as Microsoft reached the top of the world. With the outcry that it was too big and too competitive and it needed to be broken up.  Fast forward 15 years to now and there still an outcry for it to be broken up. Now because it is not big enough and not competitive enough.

Steve Ballmer B&W Portrait

Steve Ballmer stepping up to the CEO position of Microsoft in the dawn of Year Zero, A.K.A 2000 A.C was always for some reason seen as if he literally had pushed out Bill Gates from the position and he during all this trajectory had 100% of the power and had made 100% of the decisions. Not the case at all. In reality, Bill Gates was undergoing a change of thinking and character that made him want not to be CEO. Unlike what others say there was not really anyone but Steve Ballmer who could had the mantle. As Bill Gates was until the very day of his own retirement still a very strong gravitational force to be navigated with.

Ballmer from even before was already quite misunderstood as somehow not capable enough. Even if he happens to be one of the smartest men alive when it comes to financial math ever and one of the best and most enthusiastic high level seller and business drivers ever to exist too. Yet Judging from the coverage of his so far 13 2/3 years as CEO, that is not enough. Much has beed said about how Microsoft managed to triple revenue and doubled profits under Steve Ballmer. But that it is nowhere the whole picture. Ballmer did so while tripling the workforce and living through both the post-DotCom crash crisis when Microsoft lost the Pumped by Hype Stock Value and the worldwide 2008 economic meltdown that changed and elongated the Desktop PC market renewal cycle from then to now.  You don’t see many mentions of that. Even if it those two events ended or crashed a lot of big companies.

Instead you see only endless posts wondering how could it be Microsoft let Apple and Google get so big. That is an incredibly oblivious and obtuse narrow view of things.

But way more important than those growth and historic facts are other facts never mentioned well enough in the also always localist views of many that covered the news about Steve Ballmer retirement:

Microsoft Business Models through partnering is unique in how broad it is in spectrum to the consumers it targets and the high scale of the money making that happens beyond Microsoft. Yet still tied to Microsoft. If you take the money Microsoft makes plus the money Microsoft partners make and also throw in the money generated non-partnered – as a matter of speaking – the Microsoft tied economy generates at least 1 Trillion USD of revenue per natural year. Which also gives away one of the reasons why it is literally impossible for Microsoft to move as fast as a small startup. 

But that is still not the biggest reason on why Steve Ballmer didn’t perform better as he could probably would have been able to. Nope. There are other bigger reasons why that would had been impossible:

1.- Anti-Trust Oversight.

The very most underestimated reason simply because most covering the news don’t even understand how that actually worked. Most thought that such oversight was reactive when it was proactive. Leading it to kill Microsoft  Competitive Drive and bury many innovations to obscurity for the mainstream. Let me give you some examples from hundreds there must be:

  • In Windows Vista you could finally burn a DVD. That only came to be only after Microsoft fought for including it, rationalizing that it was enough of an obvious and expected feature for 2006.
  • Windows Live OneCare was killed because of the added pressure the oversight added. Which paid Windows security software companies exploited since they protested OneCare was unfairly undercutting them and that it was too cheap for the amount of features it had. apart from some retail space sabotage the companies engaged in. Microsoft revenge was releasing the code worked for it as Microsoft Security Essentials for free. Superseding Windows Defender that only combats the very most common and urgent malware and anti-spyware as informed by Microsoft Patch Tuesday Updates. If you paid attention you could also see that it was released without fanfare and not promoted until after the Anti-Trust oversight ended. Or that it is now built in Windows 8 as a super charged Windows Defender. All of that? Not an accident.
  • PlayTo is one of the most overlooked features in Windows Media Player introduced with Windows 7. And it does what Apple later shipped as AirPlay. Before Windows 7 RTM release and at the very start it was going to be promoted as it was demoed in conferences. But rumblings from Media Partners started and Microsoft got shy. It is also not a coincidence such a great feature is buried in WMP. It was the only way it could be shipped.

And just as these stories, there are many many more. I personally must know dozens.

2.-Balancing USA Governance While Being Global.

Now that certain events have come to the light that don’t need any more hype. You would then be able to tell there is a lot more oversight Microsoft has to endure while at the same time not being able to talk about it.

Oversight that don’t just happen in the USA to be fair. It happens everywhere and no one can even talk about it. First because it is probably requested and silenced by law. And there is then the problem of revealing strategy in advance to partners and competitors. Most of Microsoft strange ways of conducting PR is because they are super cautious while doing this balancing act.

Then, once you understand those two reasons you should start to get just how well Microsoft has fared with Steve Ballmer or how good he is. Or why whoever replaces him needs to know all of this to heart.

Very Big Things Steve Ballmer Truly Disappointed In That Were In His Full Control

Now, let me do some criticism of Stevie B. Stuff that really made me sigh because I know he could had done better.

1- Windows Longhorn

When Steve Ballmer said to Mary Jo Foley that he regretted  the loopedy-loo from Longhorn to Vista he don’t meant that he regretted Windows Vista shipping at it was. He meant he regretted that it didn’t shipped as it was earlier. Anywhere from 1 to 2 years earlier. Which is what would had happened if he had not trusted as much as he trusted the at the time Windows Team.

Windows Vista was a very good OS, Specially considering it was made in a rush in just 1 and half years on top of Windows Server 2003. After Windows Longhorn that had been built on top of Windows XP had to be scrapped as it had become too unstable to ship and possibly maintain.

2.-Windows Longhorn Development Documentation And Its Concept Presentation

The most costly presentation Microsoft ever made had to be when they presented Windows Longhorn Concept as a video mockup. In what had to be one of the last times Microsoft ever presented something like that in advance and let so much detailed information about a Windows OS float around so far ahead in advance.

It pretty much allowed all sort of concepts to be ripped off by Apple for OS X. While at the same time later Apple even dared to say they came up with all they stolen themselves. Sure, they did do executed it first. But hell no on they being the ones that came up with it.

On a positive note. KDE and Gnome guys did put the concepts to good use. And there is a reason why they didn’t went around saying Microsoft copied them. ugh. Anyway. It is now ancient history but you can see how Apple is still not coy on copying design elements for their UI from Microsoft.  Yet they mostly get celebrated for it.

3.-Designed For Vista Stickergate

Why and How Windows Vista got to be so reviled if as I said it was a “very good OS” must be something that you thought while reading point number one. You can thank mostly Intel for that. The dirtiest non-secret secret of Windows Vista was that because it got built so fast and security security security and pizzaz pizzaz pizzaz was where things got more focused on. The OS was never performance optimized or focused as it should.  But it still ran very well as long as you had a dedicated GPU to offload some performance cost and enough ram.  To this day if you activate all the effects and add all the visual extras is the flashiest by default OS from that time and maybe ever. Up to a fault.

More Bad Luck still could not leave Windows Vista alone and it resulted Intel had at that moment lots of old chips they wanted to still sell. But that they were finding hard to move. So they coerced, I mean convinced Microsoft to lower Vista hardware requirements for certification and to put some blinders while Intel worked their magic and sold their stuff.

The domino effect this caused was catastrophic. Nvidia got lazy with their drivers thinking performance would not be as bad. OEM’s started shipping this underpowered hardware and since the requirements were lower, they also cut back on the RAM offered.  You know what followed as advance reviews on new hardware rolled in with underwhelming chips, still not fully baked Nvidia drivers, less ram than needed provided.

By the time Vista SP1 arrived, the reputation damage to Windows Vista was just not repairable.  The reputation was so damaged by those initial impressions. That people that had never even seen or used Windows Vista had heard, read or been told to “stay with XP” and “Vista is terrible”. As demonstrated in the Windows Mojave campaign where people that had never seen or used it, liked Windows Vista when they were told it was something else. And then when where told it was Vista, they were shocked because they had heard or read terrible things.

This debacle was such a mess that it is the original reason Microsoft-Intel relations soured.

4.- Zune Hardware Not Rolling Out Internationally Right Away

There is only one reason why Zune Hardware didn’t did better. It never was an international product until too late.

The hardware and the device software was amazing for its time. It had wireless zune discovery, content sharing, PC syncing and PC networking. It had TV out with a Media Center Lite UIX. It lasted and lasted. Only people that got one with the original All-You-Can-Eat offline Zune Pass subscription + 10 free tracks  a month and Zune Social can get how amazing it truly was.

Yeah, not many. So sad.

My personal guess on why it was not rolled internationally was because of the fallout caused by the shutdown of the PlayForSure deals stalled renegotiations of music deals for the Zune Marketplace. I still think Hardware should had been pushed internationally even if stand alone. Even the first gen was a great device. Half Toshiba Gigabeat, Half Microsoft Hardware and Software.

Zune should had been 10 times more successful than it was.

Fun facts:  Even with its mostly USA-only release still managed to reach 2nd place in PMP by Gen 3. PlayForSure content while not advertised or legally supported, it still played.

5.-Zune HDX Never Got To Exist

Zune HD sequel with WP7 as a response to the iPod Touch.  I just wanted one. Enough said.

6.- The Windows Mobile 7 Debacle

The other Loopedy-loo and a story that is so not written about I will give it its own post later. As it is a REALLY important story in context of everyone always asking how it could be Microsoft failed in Mobile back then. Also in context of Android own rise to dominance. Well, I remember the very exact reasons. Needless to say the story is incredibly similar to the Windows Longhorn Saga.

Such series of events even got most to blame for Steve Ballmer being overconfident and too candid on the record – and in video no less –  when asked about the original iPhone.


By now, if you read through this post you can understand why Frank X. Shaw got so frustrated with the news coverage of Steve Ballmer after the announcement he was going to retire. Also what he tried to imply. Even if he cannot be full frontal about it. Which is why he loves to retweet certain tweets instead.

Microsoft is complex because it is big beyond itself being also very big. Fully understanding the company does take a long time. Most of those writing about Microsoft just don’t understand it because they are not able to perceive the whole of it.

Running Microsoft it also a very big job. One that gets reduced to a few easy to digest narratives for the sake of churning out salacious posts.

Steve Ballmer is still CEO of Microsoft and will continue to be according to what he has said from 9 o 12 months. And while he has been rushed on that call by certain move in the Microsoft board as even Rupert Murdoch noted. It not by as much as some bloggers would make you believe. Steve Ballmer always said that he wanted to retire by the time his youngest son went to college. But at another time in 2005 or so. He also had said he would be in at least 15 years. So, at most he would be leaving his CEO job by 6 months or maybe he even could end up staying in CEO very close to the 15 years minimum he wanted.

After he is done. He would still be part of Microsoft Board along with Bill Gates.  Coverage makes you think he will just be golfing, cruising in his fleet of ford cars and going to sport matches.

Anyway, the whole point of this long post is to explain how there is more to the story that you commonly read about. And that when it comes to Microsoft and Steve Ballmer there is tons more to the story you never read.

Finally, finally:

So, Hey Steve,  have a good time in the road toward retirement and carry on.


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Cloud Evangelist said...

Another fact most comments in the media ignore is the enterprise side of the business. They compare MSFT to Apple, which is a consumer player only, or to Google, which is the same though strives to enter the biz market. That is a limitd view really though it is appealing to most reades as they are consumer themselves and can relate to these stories.

On Zune, I believe one chance missed was to create a better integration with Xbox Live and the Xbox360 itself. That would have been something Apple had not in store (and still does not have).

Avatar X said...

@Cloud Evangelist There is indeed tons media obviates. Because it is not easily understandable or digestible. Real World Facts not always make for palatable stories.


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