- 2 Oct 08, 09:20 GMT
For years he has lived in the shadow of Bill Gates - in the public's mind at least - but the man who bustled into a room at Microsoft's London offices for our 20 minute interview was certainly no shrinking violet.
Steve Ballmer is a confident, extrovert character, and a more natural communicator than Microsoft's founder - but the most arresting line from our interview seemed to reflect a new humility at a company seen by some as the playground bully of the software world.
"We may be the "David" on this particular battle with "Goliath," he said, referring to the contest between Microsoft and Google in the field of search. He went on to admit that Microsoft had a "single-digit" share of the search market, that it had started investing in search too late, and talked with envy of Google being the "cute darling" of the technology world, just as Microsoft had been years ago before it ran into what he described as "legal things".
Later, when I asked whether it worried him that consumers didn't seem to love Microsoft he even went as far as talking of people having a "love/hate relationship" with Windows PCs, though he insisted they loved what their computers did, even if they lacked affection for the company behind it.
So does this mean that Microsoft has been transformed into an ever so humble little business, happy enough to tick over, and with no great ambitions to grow further? Not a bit of it. Mr Ballmer went on to explain that he was aiming Microsoft right at Google's search and advertising heartland - and even suggested that search was in desperate need of a bit of innovation.
He pointed out that it worked now much the same as it did five or six years ago, and it was time to move on. "Search is my favourite business," he said, explaining that when you had virtually nothing the only way was up: "Everything is possible, we have nothing to lose."
When I suggested that this plan had gone "pear-shaped" (does that expression work on the West Coast, I wonder?) when he'd failed to buy Yahoo earlier this year, Mr Ballmer said that deal had been "a tactic not a strategy". What the strategy is that will turn Microsoft into a force to be reckoned with in both search - and more importantly for the bottom line - online advertising, remains to be seen. But to underline those ambitions, Microsoft today unveils plans to invest in new R&D in the search field in Europe.
And there was nothing humble about Steve Ballmer's plans in the mobile field. Here there was a sideswipe at Google's Android operating system - a version 1.0 and it looks like it, was the verdict - and a dismissal of the idea that handset manufacturers would prefer an open-source solution to Windows Mobile. And where would Microsoft be compared with Android, Blackberry and Apple's iPhone (I left Nokia out of it) two or three years from now? Number one, according to Mr B.
Later this month at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, Microsoft will outline ambitious plans to move its business away from what Mr Ballmer described as the "software on a DVD" model towards "cloud computing", where applications and user data are stored on huge server farms. It's another area where Google appears to have moved more nimbly.
Microsoft could just sit and watch the billions flow in from Windows and Office for years to come. But this Goliath of the software world has obviously been wounded by Google's search slingshot - and is promising to hit back.
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