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What if Steve Ballmer Left Microsoft Today?

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 53 comments

Is Ballmer critical to Microsoft's future?

A few days ago, we posted an article exploring Steve Jobs’ role within Apple and how critical he is for Apple’s current and future success. With Bill Gates out of the picture and his apprentice leading the show, Microsoft is one generation ahead of Apple, but one generation behind Intel. Conceivably, Ballmer has maintained stability and profitability, but I wonder if we expect tech companies to have  celebrities and legacy at the very top to thrive? Would we miss Steve Ballmer if he dropped out of Microsoft today?

Steve Ballmer has a resume that qualifies him to run the business side of virtually any company on the globe and puts him into the desirable position to gain the power to change our lives in many aspects. In some way, he has been doing this for the past 30 years already, since June 11, 1980, when he joined Microsoft. He has been CEO for more than 10 years now and it is fair to say that everything you like and hate about Microsoft products you may use is very much tied to a decision Steve Ballmer made in the past.

Still, there is this inherent feeling that Steve Ballmer cannot be identified with Microsoft. Microsoft is still identified with co-founder Bill Gates and despite the fact that Gates is rumored to have lost interest in Microsoft’s everyday business, that situation may never change. Gates is still the face of Microsoft’s core product line. Ballmer is not.

So, who is Steve Ballmer? 

If Ballmer dropped out of Microsoft tomorrow, for what would he be remembered?  Personally, my first thought would be he is famous monkey dance, after which he so enthusiastically and breathlessly said “I love this company.” I remember the way how he dissed Linux as “cancer.” I can also recall moments of more than dozen speeches I had the privilege to listen to, speeches that were more business than product and more strategy than vision. Personally, I miss listening to Gates, as far-fetched his visions sometimes were. But Gates always commanded a stage presence in keynotes as well as personal meetings that was filled with an almost spooky type of respect and had everyone listening. The kind of respect you experience when Steve Jobs is present.

If you compare Ballmer to other personalities in the industry, we notice that he is one generation ahead of Apple, but he is one generation behind the leadership changes at Intel, for example – where Otellini has followed Craig Barrett and co-founder Andy Grove. Grove, Gates and Jobs were very similar – people with unique visions who built astounding businesses on top of great ideas at a gold rush time. They built a left a legacy behind for which they are remembered. Barrett had a tough time following in Grove’s footsteps and Grove’s way to lead, and it’s even more challenging for Otellini. I remember Pat Gelsinger, one of Intel’s key people behind the 486 and Pentium processor and President of EMC today, once telling me that Grove’s mentor ship was like a treatment at the dentist without Novocain, and that meetings with him required the best game face as you knew that you began every discussion with  a ”deficit of intelligence.”

Ballmer and Otellini also command respect, no question about it. However, when you visit Intel today, Otellini feels much more approachable than his predecessors. You may meet him running around the offices and watch people greeting him with a casual “hi, Paul.” The closest you ever came to Grove was visiting his spotless cubicle. I personally was only able to meet and talk to Grove once, but it was a memorable experience, even if Grove did not hesitate to tell me that he did not like half of my questions shot them down with a brief “next?”

Where Grove is generally remembered as the origin of the x86 processor as we use it today, where Jobs is remembered for the Mac, iPod, iPhone and possibly the iPad, and were Gates is remembered for Windows and Office, it is tough for their successors to build their own legacy. Paul Otellini has done a great job turning around Intel in 2005/2006, even if the company laid off or moved 20,000 people, and Steve Ballmer just recently saved Microsoft from the Windows Vista disaster and maintained a stable course, as well as a product line and profitability that is the envy of an entire industry. For the company, Otellini and Ballmer have done what was expected of them, even if there are persistent complaints about sluggish stock performance. But I wonder, if Ballmer as well as Otellini are caught in a trap of being just apprentices of the great minds that have shaped their companies forever?

It may sound arrogant from my perspective to say so, but the current time in the industry, more than any other before, suggests that we do look for celebrity executives to represent the products we are using. Do we need faces for companies that shape our personal life? I believe so. Even if you may point to Google, where Eric Schmidt is now CEO. But there are still Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which very much represent the innovation and culture Google was built on.

What is particularly amazing about Steve Ballmer is the fact that he could have become the face of Microsoft as there have been plenty of new products in the past 10 years, yet he chose to let other people take over ownership of those products. Think about the Xbox 360. People like Robbie Bach are much more identified with this device than Ballmer. Windows 7 or Bing have no ties to Ballmer. Even if he did not take credit for those products and left it to others, I am convinced that it would have been for the good of the company to take ownership of those products on a public level – not just on a business level in executive meetings.

It may be too late for Ballmer to become the face for Microsoft and it may actually be time for Microsoft to change leadership soon – in a time where products are more and more personal to more and more people and require familiar faces to identify them with.

So, who would be best to take Ballmer’s spot? I’ll invite you to join the conversation below, but here is my bet. I personally believe that it is easier to teach and support enthusiastic engineers with business decisions than teach business people what’s truly exciting about tech. I would always choose an engineer at the top. For Microsoft my first choice would probably be chief software architect (and Bill Gates successor in this role) Ray Ozzie, who has a certain legacy and the charisma that is necessary to lead a company like Microsoft. On Intel’s side, my vote would be chief technology officer Justin Rattner.

What are your thoughts?  

Discuss
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Top Comments
  • 15 Hide
    hellwig , July 19, 2010 7:33 PM
    I'm gonna remember Ballmer as the CEO who stood behind Vista as Microsoft's flagship OS. Steve Ballmer definitely drinks his own cool-aid. I don't see him as a problem for Microsoft (they seem to be quite profitable). I also don't think a company needs a big, visual CEO.

    Quick, name the CEO of the following companies:
    Wal-Mart
    Exxon Mobil
    Toyota
    GE

    Can't? Funny, those are some of the biggest companies in the entire world. If success is so closely tied to the popularity of the CEO, the CEOs of those companies should be touring the world as some sort of soft-rocking super-group solving mysteries and hanging 10 at the beach.

    If Steve left today, they'd put someone else in his place, and that's pretty much it. With Bill still a major share holder (and Steve himself a major share holder), I really don't think the company would change direction at all.
Other Comments
  • 3 Hide
    Hilarion , July 19, 2010 6:52 PM
    It would be a better place.
  • 8 Hide
    MxM , July 19, 2010 6:52 PM
    Our hats are not thoughts.
  • 7 Hide
    JofaMang , July 19, 2010 6:56 PM
    I do think that Ricky from The Trailer Park Boys is the only sensible successor to Steve Ballmer.
  • -4 Hide
    BluntObjection , July 19, 2010 7:00 PM
    "Still, there is this inherent feeling that Steve Ballmer cannot be identified with Microsoft. Microsoft is still identified with co-founder Bill Gates and despite the fact that Gates is rumored to have lost interest in Microsoft’s everyday business"

    Hmm, I thought Steve Ballmer was co-founder while Gates was the founder...Anyone have clarification? Is co-founder being used as an ambiguous term?
  • 0 Hide
    Gin Fushicho , July 19, 2010 7:01 PM
    I'd have to agree with you Wolfgang.
  • 5 Hide
    blurr91 , July 19, 2010 7:04 PM
    bluntobjection"Still, there is this inherent feeling that Steve Ballmer cannot be identified with Microsoft. Microsoft is still identified with co-founder Bill Gates and despite the fact that Gates is rumored to have lost interest in Microsoft’s everyday business"Hmm, I thought Steve Ballmer was co-founder while Gates was the founder...Anyone have clarification? Is co-founder being used as an ambiguous term?


    I think you're think Paul Allen as the co-founder of Microsoft. Steve Ballmer joined MS after the founding.
  • -3 Hide
    thejerk , July 19, 2010 7:08 PM
    I vote Joe Pesci to replace Steve Ballmer. As George Carlin used to say about his friend, "He seems to be a guy who gets things done."
  • 9 Hide
    Anomalyx , July 19, 2010 7:13 PM
    Quote:
    If Ballmer dropped out of Microsoft tomorrow, for what would he be remembered?

    He would probably be remembered for dropping out before doing anything truly memorable.
  • 1 Hide
    extremepcs , July 19, 2010 7:15 PM
    As long as Gates came back, I don't think he would be missed at all.
  • 1 Hide
    grieve , July 19, 2010 7:15 PM
    JofaMangI do think that Ricky from The Trailer Park Boys is the only sensible successor to Steve Ballmer.

    Ricky would say this:
    I would be the perfect processor to Ballmer!

    Thumbs up to Ricky and his grd 10!
  • -2 Hide
    johnnyfres , July 19, 2010 7:18 PM
    We would not have to look at his bald monkey face anymore.
  • -8 Hide
    grillz9909 , July 19, 2010 7:19 PM
    tl;dr
  • 15 Hide
    hellwig , July 19, 2010 7:33 PM
    I'm gonna remember Ballmer as the CEO who stood behind Vista as Microsoft's flagship OS. Steve Ballmer definitely drinks his own cool-aid. I don't see him as a problem for Microsoft (they seem to be quite profitable). I also don't think a company needs a big, visual CEO.

    Quick, name the CEO of the following companies:
    Wal-Mart
    Exxon Mobil
    Toyota
    GE

    Can't? Funny, those are some of the biggest companies in the entire world. If success is so closely tied to the popularity of the CEO, the CEOs of those companies should be touring the world as some sort of soft-rocking super-group solving mysteries and hanging 10 at the beach.

    If Steve left today, they'd put someone else in his place, and that's pretty much it. With Bill still a major share holder (and Steve himself a major share holder), I really don't think the company would change direction at all.
  • -6 Hide
    snotling , July 19, 2010 7:47 PM
    hellwigI'm gonna remember Ballmer as the CEO who stood behind Vista as Microsoft's flagship OS. Steve Ballmer definitely drinks his own cool-aid. I don't see him as a problem for Microsoft (they seem to be quite profitable). I also don't think a company needs a big, visual CEO.Quick, name the CEO of the following companies:Wal-MartExxon MobilToyotaGECan't? Funny, those are some of the buggest companies in the entire world. If success is so closely tied to the popularity of the CEO, the CEOs of those companies should be touring the world as some sort of soft-rocking super-group solving mysteries and hanging 10 at the beach.If Steve left today, they'd put someone else in his place, and that's pretty much it. With Bill still a major share holder (and Steve himself a major share holder), I really don't think the company would change direction at all.

    Indeed, maybe it is time for MS to become the faceless megacorporation it truly is.
  • 6 Hide
    eyemaster , July 19, 2010 7:49 PM
    Companies have Brand Identity. Telus has those animals, Apple has Jobs and white computers. Google has their logo page. MS has Windows. Not many people know a person behind the brands.

    The people behind the brands only matter to other enterprises, not to the public. Jobs is only popular on IT sites cause we like to make fun of them, same with Balmer.
  • 2 Hide
    vic20 , July 19, 2010 7:53 PM
    Ballmer looks like someone who sells cars. His image is all wrong. To me the most sensible replacement is John Carmack.

    He looks the part, kind of like a young Bill Gates. What he lacks in carisma, he makes up for in respect and understanding of the industry and programming.

    IMO Microsoft needs Carmack's credibility and genius, and I think Apple would suddenly look very trade-show like in comparison, like Jobs is selling Sham-Wows or Oxyclean ...
  • 0 Hide
    agnickolov , July 19, 2010 7:59 PM
    hat are your thoughts?

    MxMOur hats are not thoughts.

    Well, it's better than "Cat ate your thoughts?", which would certainly have passed the spell checker too...
  • 4 Hide
    Anonymous , July 19, 2010 7:59 PM
    Quote:
    What if Steve Ballmer Left Microsoft Today?

    MS would be left with one overpayed, screaming monkey less!
    (They might finally sell Windows UNDER $200!) :D 
  • 0 Hide
    g00fysmiley , July 19, 2010 8:09 PM
    I'd like to make a clever fail joke about the kin ...

    but that'd be not only ficitous on my feelings of how he's operated the company , but it'd also be such an obvious joke i'd feel like a failure for makign it.

    i feel he's done a good job, the company has seen growth and been profitable, there have been some risks taken that have panned out like bing, and some that have failed like the kin, however overall he's done a good job and is who i identify with microsoft for now. now when i think of microsoft as a whole yea its gates because thats where the drive that made microsoft the buisness it is today came from. but balmer has helmed the ship well in his time as well

    as for the next person to run the company... where do i send my application ;) 
  • 1 Hide
    eugenester , July 19, 2010 8:12 PM
    Quote:
    ProDigit80:
    MS would be left with one overpayed, screaming monkey less!
    (They might finally sell Windows UNDER $200!) :D 
    Most versions of Windows are under $200...
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