November 22, 2014

Microsoft’s Big Chance to Change

Big changes are coming to Microsoft. The company that dominated computing in the 1990’s and hung on through the 2000’s is on the precipice today. Will they fly or fall?

Steve Ballmer oversaw a decade of stagnation at Microsoft. It’s time for new leadership.

Big News: Steve Ballmer Is On the Way Out

As I’m sure just about everyone has heard by now, Microsoft announced today that Steve Ballmer will retire “within 12 months.” This is fantastic news for Microsoft, the IT industry, and the world.

Ballmer has been with Microsoft since the very beginning: He went to college with Bill Gates and was Microsoft’s 30th employee. Perhaps it seemed wise to Gates and the board for Ballmer to become President (1998) and CEO of the company (2000), but it doesn’t look that way in hindsight.

Since Ballmer took over, Microsoft has seemingly been stuck in neutral. MSFT stock was priced yesterday just the same as in January 2001, after a drop and rebound following the previous year’s stock market crash. I’m no stock analyst, but those that are see a very stable, boring company. So what’s wrong with boring?

The IT Market is Changing

The information technology industry has been in a continual state of flux for 40 years. The PC revolution toppled monolithic computing, and Microsoft surfed this wave high enough to catch hold of the next: The Internet gave everyone a reason to own a computer.

But another wave has lifted IT even higher: Mobility. Whether through circumstance or genius, Apple and Google are the most important companies in this new world, and Microsoft is in free-fall. They saw the trend but failedfailed, and failed again to be part of it. These failures were the result of mismanagement and myopia, not a lack of good ideas.

Microsoft under Ballmer focused on maintaining the (profitable) status quo, defending a Windows/Office PC monopoly even as the world moved on. Microsoft won the PC OS war, but nobody cares anymore. Even Office, once so important that even Steve Jobs swallowed his pride to guarantee access to it, is fading in mindshare.

I place blame for these failures on Ballmer. His choices demonstrated either a remarkable lack of vision or stultifying paranoia and lack of initiative. Time and again, creative individuals and concepts were forced out or crushed. Ballmer’s company didn’t tolerate any threat to Windows/Office or his own leadership.

Hope for Microsoft

But there is hope inside Microsoft. Repeated visits to the campus as a five-year MVP revealed the amazingly intelligent and creative people there, most of whom were working not just for a better Microsoft but a better world. They wanted to make great products, and sometimes they even succeeded despite their maddening corporate culture.

Eventually, even upper management noticed that the company’s decade-plus focus on maintaining Windows was doomed. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced not just a reorganization but a complete re-work of the company into an Apple-like “Functional Organization“. Personally, I was horrified by this announcement. Like many others, I just don’t see it “working” at Microsoft.

But another element of Microsoft’s 2013 messaging does resonate. Microsoft is becoming more open, focusing horizontally on services rather than vertically on Windows. Despite a few hiccups, Azure (for developers) and Live (for consumers) have emerged as viable cloud platforms. I’ve even got office on my iPhone now (though where’s the iPad version?) thanks to Office 365.

Stephen’s Stance

It takes a truly-remarkable leader to be willing to kill his old golden geese to make room for a new one; so far, only Apple and Amazon seem willing to forgo continuity in the name of profitable destruction. But new corporate leadership at Microsoft might un-stick the company and awaken the once-innovative Redmond powerhouse. The retirement of Steve Ballmer is welcome news.

  • deemery

    Nice piece, good summary of how MSFT got here (not a very happy place.) But the question of who will succeed Ballmer is now a pressing issue, rather than idle speculation. Will Bill Gates pull a Steve Jobsian return? I wouldn’t rule that out, particularly since a lot of the potential heirs-apparent have been driven out of MSFT over the last couple of years. There’s no obvious “Tim Cook” in Redmond, is there?

    The other consideration is MSFT’s board. Clearly they are directly ‘complicit’ in Ballmer’s at best mediocre performance over the last 10 years. If MSFT were to find someone truly “revolutionary,” would the board give that person the free reigns and the TIME to accomplish revolution in Redmond?

  • http://blog.fosketts.net sfoskett

    Honestly, this comment is more succinct and insightful than my whole post. Right on.

  • deemery

    http://www.theverge.com/2013/8/23/4651536/who-will-be-the-next-microsoft-ceo

    Mentions Tony Bates, Reed Hastings and Stephen Elop…
    Ladies and Gentlemen: Place your bets! ;-)

  • Derpanese

    I would like to see if Elon Musk could be a Steve Jobs with operating systems…