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 34.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

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

    Most of us are reading this story on a PC, Rory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.


    "Ruined teh lives of so many"???? Jeepers... Some sense of proportion here, please. It's an operating system, that's all.

    I'm still running a couple of PCs under XP, and will be sorry to see it slip out of support. I prefer Windows 7 which I also use.

    But XP is a decade old. How long do you expect MS to support old systems, and what price are you prepared to pay for them to do so?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    @7 I'd go one further. Apple seems to have been the first company to 'get' that you can't just do hardware or software, you have to have both working together well. I think that's their true innovation. Microsoft seems poised to catch up now. In my mind more competition can only be a good thing so I wish Steve B all the best!

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Dear Rory,

    Thanks for a nice article. What I would love to know is does Ballmer feel guilt? For example, billions of people such as myself have clung desperately onto XP and soon we are to set adrift, how does a person survive knowing he had ruined the lives of so many? What sacrifices has he made in self knowledge to avoid this terrible reality? Has it driven him completely insane?


  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I don't think Microsoft was ever a really innovative company under Bill Gates, a lot of their tech was bought in and refined. I'm willing to give Steve B some slack because I think the stuff Microsoft is doing now is pushing boundaries rather than safe and boring refinements. He doesn't come across as interesting but MS products are these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.


    .. probably because Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985 but Newton development didn't start until 1987, which was during the tenure of a well known corporate drone from Pepsi?...

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The issue isn't that BBC, Mashable, Engadget and the other Tech sites have a pro Apple agenda - One thing that is undeniable is that Apple has changed the landscape in the 14 years from Jobs return to his untimely death. Facebook, Google, Samsung, all sprung up and moved ahead whilst MS and Sony were sleeping. We're talking masses not your informed tech head puritists. Keep it to the facts people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Rory's always harsh and critical Ballmer, shame he can never show that level of questioning when it comes to other major heads of companies! Microsoft’s still the tool of choice, if we’re talking about OS who else is as ubiquitous in the laptop and desktop market? Business would be lost without MS, granted they’re less loud and more subtle but still equally important as Google and Apple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.


    Exactly.. Microsoft made the same error looking at the iPod.. because 'freakin' expensive for a portable media player' misses the point.. iPod was a platform for iTunes and iPhone was a platform for the App Store, shmexily designed hardware is cake, so those not in touch with their inner Geek, can ignore the boring tech explanation for why the product is so yummy

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Surely the value of a "culture" is in what it produces. They're about to launch windows 8, the surface and windows phone 8 as examples of what their culture can produce but instead most of the interview is spent trying to badger Ballmer into apologising for the last 10 years. I don't remember Jobs having to apologise for the Newton when launching the first iphone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    MSP1 is right. This is poor journalism. Confronting Ballmer about his lack of success compared to Apple is more than "untactful"; it's a waste of time. We know this narrative. We can read Forbes and Vanity Fair too. The point is to ask him how the company's strategy will affect us. Most of us care about Win8 and Surface from a consumer perspective. Questions like MSP1's are the ones to ask.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    "That's flat out wrong, he says. Look at Kinect."

    yep, Kinect that was invented and developed by an Israeli company that Microsoft simply bought. MS itself has produced nothing of note in the last decade; its no longer an engineering company but a sales and services one. It prefers to release shoddy products to make you upgrade continually. He's still a better CEO than Elop though :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.


    Agreed, the market doesn't care about the 'best' product (its a subjective term anyway eg. Betamax produced a better picture than VHS).. successful products tend to be those that are functional, first to market and achieve critical mass in market share before competitors are up to speed..the inertia caused by a massive user base hampers competitors..iTunes, Facebook and eBay are good examples

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I've heard Ballmer speak and he's very impressive if a little overbearing.

    However I don't think his tenure as CEO at MSFT has been a great success however you look at it. He's been wrong about a lot of things ("iPhone at $500 - who will want to buy that?") and he's allowed Apple and Google to carve out categories where MSFT should have been a strong player.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I don't understand why Rory kept saying "you've missed the boat" Apple has iPad, etc. Ballmer is quite right in saying that his product is different: you'll have the same OS as on your PC, you can run open source software on it, you can even write new software on it,& much more. These concepts shouldn't be too technical for BBC's "Technology correspondent". Rory needs to stop advocating for Apple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Although I use my iPad every day, I’m frustrated at its limitations – no local filing system being the biggest problem.

    W8 seems to overcome the iPad limitations. My preference if for a hybrid PC – effectively a laptop at home with keyboard and all the peripherals I need, but with the ability to take the screen/tablet part with me on the train to go to my meetings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    MSFT got distracted by XBox and let software slip.

    If they had pushed Office to iPad's and Android sooner with a better conversion they could have owned documents on the web and no one would have bothered with Open Office or Numbers/Pages/Etc.

    People would be paying them a fortune for apps now instead of ignoring their products.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.


    Haters primary whinge is simply that Apple's products exclude the 1337 Krew.. but getting basement dwelling code spankers respect, is a low income business model

    Microsoft would love a locked down "app store".. in fact they preferred the 'you never own it' model, back in 2000 -

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    W8 is just part of the global tech trend of focusing on the lowest common denominator. Most tech companies are constantly dumbing down their products so make it more usable.

    Its good for profits, but at the same time these companies are alienating their original customers which is why so many reviews are poor. I also hate the trend towards mobile and social: I'm an adult, I don't want it.


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