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 54.

    Enjoyed your article Rory, interesting times ahead. Today I just purchased a Surface device from MSFT and I'm blown away by it. I use an iPad (sorry used too) but I think MSFT are onto something very very special with Win8 and their hardware here. I've never been a huge MS fan but I now really want a Windows Phone 8 now after using Surface for the past 24 hours. Makes me also want to buy stock :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Rory, which post PC device did you write this report on? Your iPhone smartphone, your iPad tablet or your MacBook PC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    What on earth is that article about? I honestly can't understand how you are still employed.. you are so far out of touch with the technological world it is staggering.

    And that timeline of Windows misses the three most important builds of Windows - 3.11 for Workgroups, Windows 98se and Windows 7.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    "We are moving into the post-PC era."

    I guess I could imagine docking a tablet to a decent keyboard, monitor, etc. but that's as far as it goes.

    At home, I run a web server (not easy to run ghostscript, abcm2ps, etc. on cheap shared hosting) and a home media server that I can't replace with a tablet.

    I'm also doubtful a mobile device will meet my (not that high but) processing power needs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Article about Microsoft that has to start by getting it straight that Apple are better.......iiiiiiiiiiiit's Rory!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I use Linux Mint, Lubuntu, win XP, Vista and win 7 on my desktops/laptops.

    Possessing no touchscreen device, I see no reason for buying win 8.

    Most probably win 7 will be the last Microsoft OS I bought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Typical biased article and the comment that it would be difficult to see anyone else take the view that PCs have been the most exciting technology really tells it all - for a platform that is used by over 1 billion people, and can run more software than any platform other on the planet, that is pretty impressive.As for Windows 8,not one article yet which shows the advantages over iPad or Android

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    re: 43. Baldeep
    >>> If this was made by Apple or Google people would be queueing all night to get hold of it.

    Yes of course they would - but that defines their markets. Broadly, "heart" people buy Apple, "head" people buy MS. The elephant in MS's room is that a large % of their customers are still on XP which does everything they want. Apple has the same upcoming problem with iPhone/pad upgrades

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Beyond Windows OS, Microsoft make amazing development tools. Think of all the high end PC Games and applications that exist. While they were not made directly by Microsoft, the PC platform they made has and still does play a very big role in the entire computer ecosystem.

    There is so much potential in the PC platform - it really is incredible. I'm very disappointed in this article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Microsoft can't win can they? Continue to churn out familiar Windows and they're branded as boring. Launch consumer / touch focused Windows and they're slated for doing it too late or providing a new UI.

    Most negative comments are from the predictable sources. Many of us use Windows quite happily and welcome Windows 8 with open arms. Very happy to see a tablet that does more than browsing too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    MicroSoft MiStakes: integrating folders with internet pages; confusion of folders and libraries; unscannable (by eye) ribbons; malware vulnerability; favorites hidden in IE; integrating Windows Live stuff; limited graphics control in Windows Live Mail; built in delay with programs in Start button; near useless search facility etc. Windows 8 is more of same, so my next computer has to be an Apple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    What bugs me is when MS make something wonderful that allows you to use a tablet that converts to a laptop and gives you the best of both worlds people complain. They should have called it Windows Genius.

    If this was made by Apple or Google people would be queueing all night to get hold of it.

    MS made the Xbox and people like that don't they? The integration and live tiles is great.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Hating Windows 8 so far. Going back to Windows 7. What on earth were they thinking, it's SO unproductive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Our research suggests that Microsoft have got this one wrong. We put Windows 8 in front of typical users, and after 20-30 minutes none felt confident using the new interface.

    This is a real problem for Microsoft. Users now expect to upgrade software automatically and get going quickly, picking up new and changed features as they go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Is that an iphone on the desk during the interview with Steve?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I use Microsoft software in the office and at home on my Macbook Pro (office). I also use Apple products & software at home & have an Xbox 360 at home. Both companies have technologies that work however Apple is more of a vertically integrated company than Microsoft who look like they are now trying to change that. Both however rely heavily on third parties like ARM or Intel or Seagate etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Rory, I am afraid is like all technology journalists... they just love to hate Microsoft. He seemed to be on the attack from the word go...

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Windows 8 compete against WHAT?

    Intel I7 compete against WHAT?

    22 nm architecture compete against WHAT?

    [while 11 nm one is in the works in Palo Alto]

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    First impression of Bill Gates: Weird! Second impression: Wow!

    First impression of Steve Ballmer: Weird! Second impression: Wierd!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    What prevents the really great ideas from development is a lack of vision at the top. The problem is, the visionaries usually prefer getting their hands dirty, and don't want to spend time in boardrooms. Management then becomes a bottleneck. Apple got it right under Jobs, but now he's gone, it will probably sink back into the old pattern. Hope not, but...


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