The meaning of Ballmer [an insider’s take]

Change at the top of the world’s largest tech companies is always a seismic event. We all remember where we were when we first heard Bill Gates was going to step down as CEO of Microsoft. Same thing when an ailing Steve Jobs handed the reins over to Tim Cook. Now, it’s Steve Ballmer’s turn.

Disclosure: I used to work at Microsoft. I would get a distinct thrill every time an all-hands email from Mr. Ballmer hit my inbox. Receiving a message – even a mass-distributed one – from one of the most recognizable corporate leaders on the planet was quite the rush, and it always prompted hallway discussion and days of thought. Seeing him in-person at conferences was also memorable, as he was – and still is – particularly adept at letting you know where he stood. He’ll be remembered for a lot of different things, but the trait that stands out to me is his honesty. No one ever doubted that he meant what he said, and no one ever doubted that he felt it to the depths of his very soul, as well.

As the company begins the process of preparing for a successor, it’s fair to wonder what those all-hands messages will contain, how they’ll be received by Microsoft’s 97,000 employees and most importantly, how the culture of the company – and the markets it continues to influence – will evolve.

Right now, the questions outnumber the answers by a wide margin. We simply don’t know how it’ll all play out. But that’s always the case when major change hits, so Microsoft’s experience with Ballmer is no different than Apple’s was with Jobs, or how Google’s will be with Sergei Brin and Larry Page when they, too, eventually and inevitably decide to step down. No company is immune.

Here’s what we do know:

The world has changed

The PC industry that Microsoft literally built from scratch with the help of an ecosystem of hardware OEMs and developers is undergoing the most significant revolution in its history. HP just reported frightening quarterly results – including a 22% drop in consumer PC revenue – as it fights to maintain its traditional business while it tries to transition into tomorrow’s mobile-enabled, alternative-platform, cloud-centric reality. Likewise, Dell, a onetime pioneer of lean distribution, failed to get itself ahead of the market shift and now struggles at the edge of a battle to take it private.

It’s about legacy

Ballmer, like most CEOs, doesn’t just want to shuffle off into the sunset, and also like most CEOs, he wants to leave a legacy. Windows 8, and the transition to a new generation of services-friendly, touch-based hybrid machines, was supposed to be his legacy, an exclamation point on a career that saw him, in partnership with Bill Gates, redefine how we work, play, and relate to technology. While Windows 8, like all operating systems and platforms, remains a work in progress, Ballmer likely felt he had done enough to get it to this point, and that this was the right time to hand the reins over. He’s earned the right to decide how to manage his exit.

Microsoft is more than just Windows and Office

While the consumer-focused media continues to focus almost exclusively on future prospects for the company’s operating system and productivity software, it misses the much broader picture of a company that competes and often dominates in multiple venues, including enterprise software and services, development tools, cloud services and mobility. It has long been a leader in research and development spending, and its breadth of focus offers up plenty of opportunity for continued growth in emerging spaces in the event traditional revenue streams flatten out.

It’s willing to swing for the fences

The Nokia/Windows Phone partnership and its push into tablets with the Surface and Surface Pro are examples of a company unafraid to push the envelope. While it could have delivered a mild refresh to the well-received Windows 7, it decided instead to radically reshape the interface, go all-in on touch and challenge its vendor-partners to introduce new types of devices.

It doesn’t like to give up

Windows Phone, which according to IDC recently surpassed BlackBerry to take the #3 position in global smartphone sales, is Microsoft’s latest attempt to crack the mobile space. It’s been investing in various forms of handheld-based platforms since Windows CE first bowed in 1996. Most other companies would have abandoned the effort after a few years, but Microsoft continues to pursue its vision. Say what you want, but in an era of activist investors with ultra-short attention spans and even less patience, that’s admirable. On Ballmer’s watch, that persistence deepened, as evidenced by its ascension to the top of the gaming market and its biggest-bet-ever acquisition of Skype.

Whoever replaces Ballmer in a little over a year will have some large shoes to fill. However history chooses to judge his legacy, it’s hard to debate the passion he brought to his role, and the effectiveness with which he moved his organization and its stakeholders to drive large-scale change. If we all brought that much passion to our respective roles, the world would probably be a better place. If his eventual replacement brings similar passion to the role, so, too, will Microsoft.

Carmi Levy
Carmi Levy
Carmi Levy plays many roles on this planet, including journalist, analyst, geek, photographer, cyclist, dog whisperer. His favorite and most meaningful roles, however, are husband and dad.

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