The tech industry was surprised Friday when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced he was retiring within a year. The Microsoft leader just initiated a company reorganization,and seemed absolutely giddy about pulling Microsoft into the realm of devices and services. The early retirement just didn't make sense.
Or maybe it did. The news arrived after the company took a $900 million hit in the pocket over unsold Surface RT tablets. The company had also just pulled back on many of its policies regarding Xbox One such as the whole "always on" aspect, Kinect requirement and used games fiasco. For almost a year, once-hopeful OEMs have blamed Windows 8 for the declining PC market due to customer unwillingness to embrace a transformed Windows platform.
Sources close to the so-called early retirement call the move sudden, that the decision was neither planned nor as smooth as portrayed in Ballmer's message on Friday. A number of people within and outside Microsoft are reporting that he had not planned to leave Microsoft so soon, especially just after the recent restructuring that he himself had "intensely planned." Ballmer even slightly admitted this in his letter.
"My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our company's transformation to a devices and services company focused on empowering consumers in the activities they value most," Ballmer said. He originally moved up the retirement date himself, but then the nine-member board -- including Master Chief Bill Gates -- advanced it even further for him after everyone agreed it would be in their best interests.
Since the announcement on Friday, there has been speculation as to why Ballmer paid no compliments to his long-time friend Bill Gates, no "thanks for everything" statements that's usually associated with the departure of long-time execs. It's believed that Gates actually initiated the boot, that there is a rift going on between the two. Observers have noticed that even Gates has offered no thanks of his own, no sweet goodbye to a long-time Microsoft comrade. Of course, the retirement won't officially take place for around twelve months, so maybe the heart-felt goodbyes will take place then?
"As a member of the succession planning committee, I'll work closely with the other members of the board to identify a great new CEO," Gates said. "We're fortunate to have Steve in his role until the new CEO assumes these duties."
A different set of sources claim that Gates' comment was to ease concerns that Ballmer was already out the door. They also said Gates didn't instigate the early retirement date, but he wasn't entirely supportive of Ballmer as he had been in the past. That's a big change given that Gates has always been Balmer's major backer despite pressures from other board members and external partners for Ballmer to step down.
Several propellants in the early departure include an even weaker upcoming quarter, and a slowing adoption of Windows 8 despite the upcoming 8.1 update. There were also increased board worries that mounting pressure from activist investor ValueAct would succeed in obtaining a seat on Microsoft's board if Ballmer stayed in place. Even if that attempt was blocked, the public proxy battle would make Ballmer look even less capable of running the Microsoft show.
"If ValueAct got on the board, I think Ballmer finally realized that meant it was going to be the hard way from then on out until he left and he did not want that for a company he clearly loves and has been his life," one source told AllThingsD.
Ballmer's demeanor reportedly shifted after Friday's announcement. Before, he was "jumping enthusiastically" into business review meetings over the past month. He was visually excited about the company changes that he had initiated. But now Ballmer seems "uncharacteristically chastened and quiet," a total 180 degree turn from his prior "fists of steel" manner.
"He was definitely not leaving and then he suddenly was," another source said. "Even if today's Steve made the choice, it was a choice yesterday's Steve did not want to."