Ballmer and the culture of innovation


Steve Ballmer: 'This is one of two or three big moments in Microsoft's history'

Steve Ballmer's controversial time as Microsoft's boss has seen the company eclipsed by competitors such as Apple. Will Windows 8 and a new tablet be enough to reverse the trend?

To his Microsoft colleagues he's the forceful, slightly scary leader who has kept his company moving ahead through challenging times and is now about to wow consumers with innovative new products.

But according to Forbes magazine, he's the most disastrous CEO in corporate America, while to Vanity Fair he's the man who has presided over a lost decade. Which picture of Steve Ballmer is the most accurate?

When I meet him at his Redmond headquarters, just days before the Windows 8 launch, the Microsoft CEO is unapologetic about his company's record of innovation and its financial performance.

He wants to impress on me just how amazing Windows 8 and the touchscreen mobile devices that use it, will be, while I want to explore why it has been so long since Microsoft delivered anything that makes consumers go "wow".

I suggest that the new Windows Surface tablet - a very attractive and cleverly designed piece of kit that does have the wow factor - has nevertheless missed the boat, arriving long after the iPad and host of other devices. "There's nothing like the Surface," he insists.

"The other things have a purpose but they're nothing like the Surface."

I point out that Bill Gates unveiled a tablet more than a decade ago - so what's gone wrong?

"There's nothing like Microsoft Surface on the market today and I'm real excited about it." he repeats.

Microsoft is packed with clever people, and pours billions into research and development, so why do so many people believe it has delivered nothing much new for the past decade?

That's flat out wrong, he says. Look at Kinect, the XBox motion-capture controller.

Kinect is impressive - and when I visited the Microsoft research centre last year it seemed to have inspired dozens of side projects.

Kinect Kinect has been one of Microsoft's biggest recent successes

But looking back over how the world has changed over the last decade, Microsoft seems to have been watching from the wings rather than playing a leading role.

"I would clearly say the most exciting technology product of the last ten years was the Windows PC," Steve Ballmer responds.

"I'm unapologetic about the way PCs over the last 10 years have changed the world."

Now that is one view - but it is difficult to believe that anyone outside the leafy confines of Microsoft's Redmond campus shares it.

The PC has indeed changed the world, but surely that is last century's story. We are moving into the post-PC era.

Reminding the Microsoft CEO that he has presided over a period which has seen its stock market valuation eclipsed by Apple is maybe untactful.

He comes back fighting though, insisting that he is proud of what his company has delivered to investors.

It all makes for a slightly testy encounter.

When we finish he quickly removes the microphone and stands up as if he can't wait to escape, but then kindly stays to give me a quick and impressive demo of Windows 8 on a giant screen.

Microsoft campus Microsoft - still a pleasant place to work

Later, I sit with staff in the Microsoft conference centre and watch Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer celebrate 30 years of corporate giving.

It is a moving event at a company whose staff have now given more than $1bn to charity.

Staff rise to applaud their founder, who decided early on that Microsoft had a duty to give something back to the community.

But while there are many impressive things about the corporate culture of Microsoft, my dealings with the company suggest that it has become a lumbering and inefficient bureaucracy.

It may be a nicer place to work than some - but turning ideas into products in a hurry has not been a recent strength.

Now Microsoft needs to prove that Windows 8 is just the start of a new era of innovation.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Microsofts best and most reliable OS (for PCs) so far is XP. Vista was a disaster, and persuaded me to convert to Linux (Ubuntu). I havent looked back. Recent "improvements" to Word and Excel are clunky and dont add any value to the XP versions of that used to work OK. Microsoft has run out of steam and out of new ideas and depends on rent seeking behavior to preserve its market position.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The most important business change for Microsoft is the Windows Store allowing Microsoft to gain a percantage on software and hardware sold.

    Windows 8 is just a facilitator.

    I do not want a touch interface on my PC - the W8 interface is a backwards step for me.

    As a customers of Microsoft for decades I do not appreciate being ignored with Windows 8.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The comparison with Kinect is worrying. Potentially good games have been ruined by enforced Kinect controls where a standard controller would do a better job - see the latest Steel Battalion.

    One hopes Microsoft does not push touch/motion controls as the only way to do interact with Windows. It's not good enough and won't be for a long time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @3. Steve Brigden
    Many years back I worked for a small company bought up by Microsoft (to much publicity and fanfare) and then closed down (without a murmur). However I did for a while work in Redmond and did meet Bulmer. I can assure you he wasn't evasive with people that worked there. I don't like the companies products but still use them because the competition is worse

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Microsoft are still living on the fruits of windows 95, their software is mired in legacy code but yet again the trumpets out for Microsoft’s latest bloatware. The huge lobbying machine is in full action as it tries to force feed anyone that will listen that Google is evil, Linux is the work of the Devil and Microsoft innovate as the the policy of Embrace, extend, and extinguish lives on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Have had a dual boot set up on my laptop for a couple of months now with Windows 7 and Windows 8 (preview, not final release) and have found i very rarely use Windows 7 anymore.

    That's not to say that either is better, I've just found for the simple stuff, such as moving music onto my phone etc is easier to accomplish using Windows 8.

    Each to their own though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Both the article and the blog are very shallow, missing important issues. With a locked down "app store" OS how do companies install their existing custom applications? How does one install existing open source applications? How do hobbyists install their own applications? Does the hardware lock down stop you from installing an alternative open source OS? No mention of any of this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @4ChrisJC - You might want to check your facts. Microsoft first produced a Tablet PC a long before the iPad. Sony were producing MP3 players before the iPod. Apple's success is not in innovation but in copying good ideas, engineering them so that they are better, well-designed, good-looking and making them seamless with other Apple products.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Some of the "expert" opinion is strange to say the least. Sarah Rotman Epps says having two versions of Windows, one for x86 and new SOC x86 chips and one for mobile ARM-based chips, is confusing for the customer. Why is that any more confusing than the difference between Apple's Mountain Lion OS and iOS6? It seems as if some people want to find fault with Microsoft no matter what.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The performance of narrowly-focused, consumer-oriented companies like Apple is not a sensible yard stick for measuring the contribution of players who provide the infrastructure of business. If an evil magician made all Microsoft, IBM or Cisco technology suddenly disappear, banks, utilities, supply chains, and markets would stop functioning. If it were Apple, we would just hear a lot of whining.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Microsoft have never been innovators. They always copied somebody else, made a slightly worse implementation, but cleverly marketed it / licensed it to ensure it became the de-facto standard.

    So Microsoft allowing Apple to develop the Tablet category is hardly without form.
    The difference this time is possibly that Apple have made a very good job, so Microsoft have their work cut out to usurp it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Ballmer just doesn't work for me as a Hi-Tech CEO. He seems evasive, glib and somehow untrustworthy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The idea that they've done nothing over the last 10 years is utterly silly. There are 70 million homes withan Xbox 360 on them after all.

    Where they have fallen down is the mobile space and they've been caught short there. That's changing though although it'll take a while and a few iterations.

    Strangely Apple used to be the innovators. That's dried up and it seems it's MS now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Microsoft's biggest fault is its low key corporate modesty. A complete change from 10 years ago. However when you look at their broad range of product assets across consumer and the enterprise and how far they are penetrated in multiple market segments, you can't help but wonder if the analysts are missing the point. Their true asset value compared to Google and Apple is staggering.


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