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August 23, 2013

Ballmer Legacy - a Hugely Underrated CEO

Steve Ballmer (News - Alert) today announced that he is retiring within a year. Many see this as good news. I don’t.

It’s not always easy being Steve Ballmer. Sure he has his billions and oversees the most successful software company in history, but there has never been a shortage of critics. Wall Street hasn’t been happy with a stock price as flat as the salt in Bonneville.  

And every product failure or hiccup comes back to bite Steve.

I’ve been covering Microsoft (News - Alert) off and on since 1984 a have a decidedly different perspective. Here’s where the Ballmer blasters are dead wrong.

The biggest Ballmer knock is they he didn’t invent Google (News - Alert), the iPhone or the iPad. The notion is that Microsoft has to rule every market or else it is a failure.

Does Apple have SQL Server, Lync SharePoint or Office? Does Google have the Xbox or Visual Studio? I thought not.

Ballmer has been a great CEO. Let’s look at his main accomplishments and then a few missteps.

Microsoft now dominates the gaming console space, having dislodged Sony and Nintendo. And with Kinect and Xbox Live, that lead isn’t going anywhere.

Office 365 is an insanely feature-packed Cloud Suite that is gaining traction.

Lync is as much an underrated product as Ballmer is an underrated CEO. This Unified Communications platform is loved by all who use it.

Hyper-V, long overshadowed by VMware, is now picking up some serious market share. And this is just one of many virtualization tools in the Ballmer arsenal.

Even Windows Phone, with its puny market share, is now a very good product, especially for IT pros who can exploit its integration with tools such as Exchange.

Meanwhile, Google is still the search engine king, but Bing is actually a very good engine. It may never unseat Google, but most folks find, if they actually use it, that Bing is a fresh take on search.

Ballmer Goes “All in” the Cloud

When Bill Gates (News - Alert) was still CEO he bet the company on the Internet, and thus Hotmail and Internet Explorer were born. After Steve replaced Bill, Ballmer bet Microsoft on the cloud. Leading that charge are Azure, a broad cloud platform, and Office 365, a SaaS suite.

More recently, Ballmer has been pushing Microsoft into the world of devices. And yes, Surface is a clunky, crazy schizophrenic product, but it usually takes Microsoft several tries to get it right. And once the Surface kinks are smoothed out, it will actually be better than the iPad because it is a fully functional computer as well as a tablet.

In fact, the whole push into devices is based on seeing how successful Apple (News - Alert) is, and the fact that when one vendor controls the hardware and the software it makes for a better more stable product. “This is a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves -- as a devices and services company. It impacts how we run the company, how we develop new experiences, and how we take products to market for both consumers and businesses,” Ballmer explained last year.

Could Microsoft phones be next? I’d guess yes.

Ballmer Goes Bust

Steve Ballmer is far from a perfect CEO. Here are a few of his misses.

Vista, obviously, was a joke. And Surface and Window 8 are now even making Vista look good in comparison.

Early Windows Phones were hard to use and not always stable. Now with Win Phone 8 Microsoft is finally getting it right.

The Ribbon interface for Office was a step backwards for most users.

And Windows, now more than 25 years old, really should be a lot more stable.

Ballmer’s Next Move

So what will Steve do after retiring? The guy is a bundle of energy, so I can’t see him sitting still long. My hunch is that he will hook up with old pal Bill and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Steve has plenty of money but is not exactly a spendthrift. I remember decades ago trying to convince Steve to buy bicycles for him and his wife. Every time I asked him about them, he was still struggling with the price.

I can certainly see Steve giving up a big chunk of his fortune. And not only is Bill involved in the foundation, former Ballmer employee Jeff Raikes is now running it.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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