Normally, when writing a column such as this, you try to leave the punchline to the end. This is in the probably somewhat vain hope that those reading will actually wade through the words before getting to the bottom of the page.|
This month, I simply can’t wait that long – so here it is: Steve Ballmer should stand down from Microsoft. He’s now a liability to the company, not an asset. He’s the captain of the ship, responsible for its actions since he took over from Bill Gates a decade ago. Go to one of the financial websites and look at the Microsoft share price. It was steadily rising all the way through the 1990s, then flatlined from 2000 till today. Even the analysts are downgrading the stock. The reason for this is something that usually requires copious amounts of alcohol to discuss and argue about before coming to some sort of consensus.
This time around it’s all too straightforward. Under Ballmer’s reign, Microsoft has stopped being inventive. It settled down into a stodgy middle-age period: Office was selling well, Windows was everywhere, its internet strategy was underway, money was coming in. Then the DOJ were all over them like a rash, and the company turned soft and scared. Don’t do anything edgy or innovative, it might upset the lawyers.
On the OS side, the dead-end Win9x line was bolted on to the NT codebase to make XP, and at this point the rot really set in. XP Home was a terrifying monstrosity of zero security that resulted in an explosion of malware. And because neither code installation nor code execution was properly managed with certification, any old bit of rubbish attached to an email or squirrelled away on a USB key would cause your desktop to collapse as it ran riot.
Then we had the Vista debacle, a half-hearted attempt to fix the mess, where most of the real innovation was washed away by poor management. Windows 7 goes a long way to fix this, but Microsoft’s recent OS track record isn’t one Ballmer can be proud of. Office 2010 isn’t bad, and the new Mac Office 2011 looks pretty good, but only by comparison to the utter disgrace known as Office 2008.
Do I need to mention the rotting corpse that was Windows Mobile 6 and 6.5? Yes, Windows Phone 7 looks promising, but it’s starting four years behind its competitors. Windows tablets are coming, but where’s the innovation here? I had Pen Windows running on Windows 3 in 1990. Has it really taken Microsoft 20 years to get from a pen to a touch tablet? Is this really the result of the pompous puffed-up self-importance of Microsoft Research, which spends the gross national profit of a small African state on… well, what, precisely?
Ballmer should have been more proactive. He should have forced Microsoft Research to deliver innovative and relevant products; over the past five years, only Project Natal has been of genuine promise, and that was based on the acquisition of 3DV. Come on, Steve: the iPhone and iPad weren’t the result of some mystical chanting around a camp fire – just good engineering and the determination to take risks and try something new.
It’s long overdue that Microsoft splits into a number of separate companies. It needs to set up an independent hardware division to ship innovative designs with the Microsoft brand.
I could suggest that Ballmer draw upon his extensive experience outside of Microsoft, but that amounts to a few months as a salesman after he graduated. You could argue this doesn’t matter, that he’s grown up with the company, man and boy. And that he knows its inner workings better than anyone. All of this is true. But when Microsoft became the dominant supplier for desktop OSes and productivity suites, a huge disconnect from reality came about. Someone needs to come in who won’t defend what’s gone before, who’s willing to take a risk that might just wobble the cashflow from Office and Windows.
Frankly, this is beyond Ballmer’s capabilities. He has a choice. Either the next decade will be one of the flowering of a new set of mini-Microsofts, each doing state-of-the-art work, or a painful slow slide into the abyss with him at the helm of the supertanker. It’s your move, Steve.