It's time for Bill Gates to come back to Microsoft.
I've long seen it as a foregone conclusion that Ballmer isn't the guy to be running what was until quite recently the world's preeminent technology company. I don't think many would shed a tear if Microsoft's board put to an end what I like to call Ballmer's "reign of error," but the more pressing question is: who should replace him?
I think we all know damn well who -- but I'm not so sure he's available. Yet.
Someone recently asked me what it was like meeting Bill Gates, who I interviewed a few times back at Engadget. I said, I know it sounds like a cliché, but it is very easy, when you sit down with one, to tell that you're talking to a genius. As soon as Bill opens his mouth, you think: this person is on a different level than the rest of us. It can be kind of intimidating, but it can also be a little hypnotic if you let yourself get pulled into his vision. Yes, believe it or not, Bill Gates has his own Reality Distortion Field (and I mean that as a high compliment).
Things wouldn't turn around immediately, and we'd need to keep this in mind. Microsoft has forgotten how to lead the way, and the company has forgotten how to do more with less. In matters of creating truly great products, there are signs of life, but the folks behind them are swimming upstream.
That focus on products can't be understated, and Bill is -- admittedly -- not the most elegant product designer. In his infamous 2007 joint interview with Steve Jobs, Bill confessed that Jobs always understood thoughtful product design in ways he did not: "Well, I’d give a lot to have Steve’s taste. ... The way he does things is just different and, you know, I think it’s magical."
There's taste, though, and there's cunning -- and it was Bill's killer instinct that made Microsoft the undisputed winner of the first wave of personal computing. And with each passing quarter, it's becoming increasingly clear that in matters of both taste and cunning, Steve Ballmer has neither. Paging Dr. Gates: you're needed in the ER.
If the narrative I'm stringing together here is starting to sounds a little familiar, it is. We all know the legend of a certain founding visionary who comes home to the company for their second act.
I'm not saying Bill's going to leave his new gig as the world's greatest living philanthropist with aplomb, but the multi-billion dollar wheels at The Gates Foundation have been set in motion -- and lest we all forget, the Foundation's endowment is tied directly to Microsoft's long-term success. It may just happen that Bill can help the Foundation more by securing Microsoft's future.
How long can Ballmer's bluster substitute for real leadership, and how much dumb money can Microsoft throw at its "strategy?" Former GM at Microsoft (and now SVP at Google) Vic Gundotra recently said of Microsoft's partnership with Nokia, "Two turkeys don't make an eagle." And he's absolutely right, no amount of Dangers and Skypes and Nokias and RIMs and any other outsized, bloated multi-billion dollar acquisitions can make up for vision at the helm. Bill doesn't have a spotless track record either, but he's a master at making calculated gambles on people and projects that break new ground and define the future.
Jay Allard comes to mind: the visionary who convinced Bill that the internet was the future, and who ultimately created the first online console gaming service and what has become the most compelling new consumer product Microsoft has introduced in the last few decades: the Xbox. The vision behind Xbox? Stay scrappy, ship early, and eat your competitors alive. If Ballmer had it his way, the 360 would just be another case study for "Windows Everywhere," and would probably have more in common with the company's doomed Media Center Extender products than the global success story it's become. (Did I mention Jay recently left Microsoft after Ballmer killed his early foray into tablet computing, the Courier?)
You can't fake a lack of vision forever. When Microsoft is ready to come out from behind the great numbers it puts on the board quarter after quarter with its Windows, Office, and enterprise businesses, and admit there's a very big, very real problem rotting away the roots, hopefully Bill will be there. Until then, we wait.
Direction: or the ability to Lead in the direction vision says we should go...
MS needs someone who has the vision and the ability to galvanize and excite and lead the company down paths that might not be as "safe" but far more lucrative now who could fit that suit?
Microsoft has never lacked vision, they've seen and tried many of the things that are rapidly becoming mainstream, and other companies are making huge. Tablets, web connected TV's, the living room experience, App Locker, the Windows app market for mobile, all of these Microsoft saw years ago. Microsoft's problem, which it shared under Gates, is the lack of ability to execute and translate that vision into usable products.
Microsoft has always had all of the components to create a seamless consumer experience, but has never had the desire or ability to connect the consumer dots. Windows, as well as the Live web services, have always given me the impression that they have revolved around keeping consumers in the ecosystem, where Google has always been about drawing people in to Google, and making everywhere the ecosystem.
Consider mobile, and the relationship over the last few years between Outlook, Livemail (or Hotmail), and the web. Microsoft always had all of the pieces to give consumers a seamless connected experience between the basics of email, calendar, tasks and contacts. None of these products were seamlessly connected, and never worked well together. You can import or export well enough, or you can view your web calendars in Outlook (but not make any changes), and you always have to come back to sync with the PC. Today, all of this is finally available in Office 365 (the beta web version, which I actually like), but I've moved on to the Google ecosystem, where calendar, contacts, email, and an enormous amount of other things are available (formerly on my Blackberry, and now Android) on my mobile. Microsoft's position has always been "you can integrate with our products", where Google's position is "we want to integrate with everything, here's some software to do it, and oh hey, here's a bunch of API's to help you integrate with us".
Another great example is the Zune, and more importantly to me, the Zune desktop software. I think the Zune desktop software is one of Microsoft's best pieces of consumer software. I find it visually appealing, easy to use, has some great features. It's my desktop media player of choice. However, it's crippled. It doesn't work with anything other than the Zune player, which Microsoft finally figured out with the Zune HD, just in time for standalone mp3 player to become almost irrelevant. The Zune software however, is almost useless unless I stay in the Microsoft ecosystem, with a Zune, or a Windows phone. This renders Microsoft's services irrelevant, unless I stay in the entire ecosystem. Why shouldn't I be able to use the Zune to manage music on Android, thumb drives, or other players? Windows Media player can, but it's junk software.
Consumers aren't enterprises, and we don't stay in a vertical product line, nor do we want to. Apple became successful with iPods because of iTunes for Windows (arguably). iTunes remained successful (again, arguably) because they removed DRM from the iTunes store enabling sales to owners of non iPod devices. Amazon is highly successful with the Kindle, which is available via software in iOS, PC, Mac, Blackberry, Windows, Windows Phone 7, Android, and the web. Amazon MP3, same story for downloads, and ultimately for the cloud player. Netflix, trying to become available to being available on everything with a screen. Microsoft has been in all of these markets first, but tried to lock everything into the Windows ecosystem, wrapped up in DRM that often limits their use to the Microsoft ecosystem. This has failed, and given their competitors huge differentiation form Microsoft products. Want to use Media Center on your TV, $200-400 for an XBox. Why not $60 for a Roku?
The coming battle for Microsoft is to keep the operating system relevant to consumers, and increase the value of the operating system to end users. The desktop or laptop must become the nexus of the personal cloud, supporting and powering the users digital life, across all devices and services. Right now, Google and Amazon are leading the charge pulling the personal cloud onto the web. Google and Amazon are drawing people IN to the ecosystem, while Microsoft is still trying to keep users penned in. Microsoft has seen the coming of this, and launched the Windows Home Server line, but I think it's not been that well executed, and is kind of like a $600 storage box. WHS features need to be built into Windows, and need be accessible from the web. Why do I need Google Music, or the Amazon Cloud Player? I could have a personal cloud player in the Zune software that could project my music to any device, if Microsoft would just write the software. Microsoft could launch your personal cloud player in several months, at 95% less cost than Amazon or Google, centered around (but not locked into) Windows. Why can't my PC be like Dropbox, invisibly seamlessly syncing files between my desktop and notebook? Why can't my notebook transparently, quietly, and in the background perform an incremental backup when on my home network, or even remotely? Yes, some of this can be done with SkyDrive but it's a pita to configure.
Microsoft views services as ancillary to software, Apple views software as ancillary to hardware (in Macs), and now as ancillary to hardware AND services (iOS), while Amazon views hardware and software (Kindle, and soon to be Amazon tablets) as ancillary to services. Google views hardware, software, and services as ancillary to data and advertising. They are all complementary in the consumer space, and the major players all have their fingers in each. As long as Microsoft views everything as ancillary to selling copies of Windows, they're in trouble as Windows becomes increasingly irrelevant.
Someone younger with vision who can see the landscape changing month to month but can also see into the future of devices media and consumption of games movies and music is whats needed at Microsoft even Apple is letting its older guys shape their future and it could cost them further down the road if they dont stay in touch with the very young at heart technolust.
Also always pitching in the direction of enterprise only with little effort left towards base consumers is going to catch them out where they wont soon recover from...
It seems like with all the businesses they're getting into lately, they have been a brute force approach. Microsoft starts off behind the competition and then throws money at the problem until they forced themselves in to the number one spot. When have they ever been ahead of the game with something new? I'd be curious to see where Microsoft goes if someone who has "taste" and a knack for product take the reins.
I really admire Ballmer's passion. I mean look at this: That man loves his company and wants it to be successful. If Ballmer were to step down, I think it would be interesting to see Joe Belfiore ( www.microsoft.com/presspass/exec/joeb/ ) take his place (after he resurrects Windows mobile business). I think he does a great job with product, he can present well, and he reminds me of Steve Perry from Journey.
And all these guys talking about salesmen, you forget that Jobs is a salesman. A way more talented flim-flam artist than Ballmer, but in terms of where they're originally coming from, vaguely similar people.
What MS needs above all is a marketing shake-up. All of us who've dealt with MS for years knows that their marketing is famously shambolic, and that is one of the main reasons it's failing in the consumer sector where the demographic you're addressing is fundamentally dumber and responds far more to those efforts (and as the user base expands, it's going to get even dumber). Not being good at it nowadays in the 'age of me myself and I' is pretty fatal - you can't expect your technology to speak for you anymore.
What MS needs isn't a 'visionary' or any such nonsense. If it needs anything, it needs first and foremost a *better* salesman in charge who can realise and effect repair on how Microsoft fails to excite it's users. Its not a 'vision' thing. It's a perception thing.
And that includes how Ballmer himself is perceived - and as competent as he may be, he just doesn't look the part either.
Round TWO: Jobs returned to Apple, and later Gates leaved Microsoft. Ballmer ruined MSFT, and Jobs pushed Apple to the sky. Apple is now the technology monster (OK, I know Google is there, but it's outside this drama).
Round THREE: It would be nice to see a new episode of this war. Gates, please come back...
Or just be another Big-Blue. Boring.
It would just be neat to see what they came up with. ANd to see Mr Gates back in action.
That's not to say theres not others that would be able to do the same thing at msft. I just don't know of anyone that could. Imagine if they open sourced windows (they won't, I know) -- or if they started giving away software licenses, or if they stopped changing every damn version, or went with a buy once upgrade forever (or any other idea of the like) --- To me, to be radical, they need Gates, or someone of at least his intellect and cunning. This is clearly not ballmer. And, to be relevant again -- to be cool again, like others have said, they have to be radical first.
I myself would love to see them throw all of their weight, muscle and effort into a microsoft-anew. Just to see what they would bring, invent, acquire, and of course, copy and see if they might be compelled to spend some of their cash. Not for things like MicroHoo, or Microkia or Microskype. But for seeing the world as it is, reshaped and reformed by the tablet & handheld revolution.
I'd be interested to know what you think Steve should have done that you think someone else would have been able to do under the same circumstances with the lawsuits and other restrictions put on the company right as Ballmer took over.
The company has some amazing products, Windows 7 is flying off the shelf, Office is flying off the shelf, XBox and Kinect are flying off the shelf, WP7 is amazing and will only get bettter with Mango update, Bing is great and marketshare continues to go up, Skype deal was brilliant if you can look at it from the long term and not so short term like most people are doing.
What do investors need? Make a list i'd like to know.
A company of Microsofts size is not run by one person, it's run by a board of people who all help shape the company, one of those people on the board is Bill Gates, do you honestly think Bill and Steve don't discuss strategies for the company? If Ballmer needs to go, then the entire board needs to go.
MS creates some great products, they weather the stock market storms well and are stable in general and has a wide range of investments and industry penetration that no one else has. Apple is taking off because the only place they have to go is up.
Zune HD didn't have Xbox live;
Xbox didn't have Zune Music or Movies until after he left;
Kin... well 'nuff said;
Courier had no signs of apps, nor Zune or Xbox.
There is nothing wrong with that if he were working at Sony but MS is a platform company.
I vote for Sinofsky, he's been cleaning up the development process and seems to know how to herd developers into a regular cadence of releases that meet or exceed expectations of their customers. Known for running the Office team through 2007, kicked-off 2010, then he moved to the Windows team, cleaned up Vista and led the team through development Windows 7. He avoids leaks and lofty goals to release products that are on time and exceed expectations...
You could make games for the Zune using XNA studio. I however can not remember if it was before or after the Apple App Store.
The difference between Apple and Microsoft is that Apple is willing to wait till all of the pieces are ready, and once they are they choose to split the marketplace. On the other hand Microsoft tries to get everyone to be a customer.
It's not easy to hold a company together through a 90-degree turn at speed, but Bill succeeded with that. While losing out in vision points, in almost myopic fashion, he apparently can take that back in execution when the course has finally been corrected. Today, everyone can see it coming again; now what is necessary is not far-sighted vision but a firm hand on the helm.
I think the world needs Bill Gates more than MSFT does, he could do more good out there in the world, helping the poor & the marginalised, than he could ever do from behind a desk in Redmond. Also, he's not reliant on MSFT's stock price for backing, as he has all of Warren Buffett's money too, some $45Bn I seem to recall. They have to spend $2bn a year just to stand still. the foundation is his atonement, and a worthy one at that.
I think they have the classic problems of scale an incumbency, they are too vested in "windows everywhere" to see that the landscape is changing. Putting Windows on a tablet is just more myopia, as is Windows on ARM.
I think they have the right idea with Windows 7, reduce complexity, this is the same sort of thing as OSX, It's UNIX underneath, and X windows on top, tried and tested. it's the windows manager (quartzwm) where all the magic happens.
Gruber wrote a great article a while back, which said that Apple owned the $1000+ Computer space, that MSFT was left fighting for the middle to low end, they were competing on price, on specs. Not on experience. This may be important for geeks, but not for users, Joe Public & your mom. Google have that much right. The average user doesn't need much, doesn't do much on their PC. this is why Apple is able to sell them an expensive box, and support/training in a pretty package and people jump at it.
Generally I loathe MSFT, not for their products, but for the way they have perverted the user experience, and lowered people's expectations of what a computer can be & do. If in doubt reboot, is not an answer, but then I'm a UNIX admin by trade.
That said however, "reboot" may be an answer for MSFT. Apple decided to move to Intel, and cut off the PPC users flat. I see no reason why MSFT cannot do the same. Wintel is spent as a force on the desktop. (my XP system takes 2 mins to come up, and it's locked down tight.) It still holds sway to an extent in the server room, but even there it is being carved up by virtualisation in the enterprise, and by Linux as a cheaper and more stable platform. It's only hope if it is not to become a utility, something that simply throws off cash rentier style like power & water companies, is if it makes itself relevant to Joe Public as a technology company again. That will require balls. Not to mention the mechanics of a reverse takeover. By which I mean, you replace the CEO, and the all the heads of division, etc, and remake it as a company. You bring back a start-up feel. You allow things like the courier to go ahead. Not for mass production, but as a prototype, like the car industry. To gauge demand.
MSFT are not Apple, or Google, they do not IMO have the vision as a corporation, to simply dangle stuff out there see if people bite. I would however bet that a few of their people have ideas, and should be encouraged to run with them. Changing a corporate culture is a long slow task, but MSFT need to get beyond internecine strife and turf battles if they are to remain relevant IMO.
Microsoft is "post cool", in the 80's everyone wanted to work for them, now they have to chase & woo promising candidates, meanwhile everyone wants to work for Google, Apple, or a start-up. They need to get the magic back, and they can't do that from the comfort of a shrinking monopoly. They need to be vulnerable, alive & thinking, not cocooned and oblivious. Basically they need to create great products, they need to take risks, and not be wedded to a platform that has been in constant flux for most of it's life. It's more than "mature" it's old. You can still do this on a server, but not on the desktop. Not when people have so many other choices where you aren't even a player.
I think MSFT have this idea about keeping developers online and all that legacy stuff, but a lot of it is bunk these days. "If you built it, they will come." If MSFT don't want to be a cash cow utility they're going to have to built something that engages users & developers alike. More of the same is an evolutionary dead end, As Stephen Elop knows only too well.
If Microsoft wants to make a dent, they need to invent the next big thing to displace all these things, and Bill was not the innovator people wanted him to be.
I do not see any kind of strong arm tactics fixing Microsoft's positioning in these fields. They need to dominate in computers and gaming as they have done, and they need to strengthen their positions in both places IMO.
What Microsoft needs even more than a new CEO, though, is to split the consumer units off into a new subsidiary. The core products at Microsoft have concerns that can often be mutually exclusive to the concerns of the consumer products. If the two were free to focus on their own issues, I think that might help the situation enough that they might not even need to fire Ballmer from the CEO position. Maybe Jay Allard could come back as CEO of the new spin-off?
In any case, they face a real conundrum that is going to be hard to solve. I haven't seen anyone yet propose a solution that inspires a "eureka", so there are no obvious answers.
It would be better to split the company into consumer products, Windows and Servers, and Apps. I think that the spun off Apps and consumer products companies would have excellent growth opportunities. As for the Windows company.... well they have a lot of market share.
No tech company has dominated more than 1 paradigm. Microsoft did well to not get submerged by the Internet tidal wave so far.
But now they are getting drowned by the mobile/cloud paradigm to a point that would need a miracle rescue.
Rather than spend a ton of money on desperation plays with Windows Phone 7 and Skype, not to mention Zune, Kin etc., they could simply try to extract maximum value from the existing corporate franchise and help customers migrate to Windows / Office cloud platforms.
Bill was smart enough to go out on top, and is probably too smart to come back in his 50s to either a strategy of trying to make Microsoft cool and relevant again, or extracting the last dollar from the legacy platforms.
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