Latest in 1985

Image credit:

Ballmer channels 1985, suggests Apple split iPhone hardware and OS

Robert Palmer

Steve Ballmer is imitating his CEO predecessor by suggesting that Apple separate its iPhone hardware from OS X, according to Ars Technica.

Nokia leads the smartphone market today with about a 30 percent share, he said. "If you want to reach more than that, you have to separate the hardware and software in the platform," he said in an discussion forum with the Churchill Club, a Silicon Valley business and technology group.

In 1985, Bill Gates approached Apple (and its then-CEO, John Sculley) with prospects in hand to convince it to license Mac OS to third-party vendors. As we all know, that didn't happen (at least not with Microsoft as a partner), keeping the bond tight between Apple hardware and software. Microsoft wound up doing it themselves with Windows.

The idea that Ballmer thinks other companies should be more like Microsoft isn't shocking at all; in fact, what else was the man supposed to say? Like Jobs with Apple, Ballmer's talks and interviews wield a great deal of influence on Microsoft's stock price. If he said anything other than what he did, MSFT would have taken a hit. As CEO, that's unconscionable.

If Apple had partnered with Microsoft in 1985, chances are Apple wouldn't be anywhere near the company it is today. Apple's share of the OS market could have been even bigger, sure, or somehow assimilated into the Microsoft-Borg collective. Does that mean Sculley was wrong to reject the offer?

Ballmer is coaching the other team in this game, and to give his comments any merit beyond equating them to cheerleading bluster is a mistake. The same with Gates and Sculley: I'd say Apple was right, just as it's right today to keep the iPhone platform tightly integrated.

In fact, if you want to look at the key difference between Microsoft and Apple, look at search. For search, Microsoft is to Google as Apple is to Microsoft for operating systems. Microsoft has about nine percent of the search market, Apple has eight percent of the OS market.

Instead of demonstrating how Microsoft is innovating their way into greater market share, Ballmer talks for seven minutes at the same conference about their position in the search market, but says nothing. He makes noises about "redefining the category" of search, but what does that even mean?

CEOs are never comfortable being called on the carpet when their company is facing stiff challenges, as Microsoft is with search. Ballmer's talk is an interesting case study in the contrast between Ballmer and Steve Jobs when it comes to explaining bad news. Ballmer blathers for seven minutes, while Jobs is more likely to write a tersely-worded letter that gets leaked to the press.

Microsoft and Apple are two companies at two extremes of transparency. Ballmer has verbal diarrhea, Jobs is communicatively constipated. Neither is ideal, but which one is better, in the end?

It all boils down to corporate politics: Ballmer's blithe suggestion that Apple should be more like Microsoft would -- of course -- be impossible to implement. Apple would destroy itself in a cataclysm of management.

Exactly what Ballmer wants -- and what Microsoft has wanted for 23 years.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr