Silliest pundit-in-chief Joe Wilcox lavishes praise upon silliest chief executive Steve Ballmer
January 15th, 2011
Daniel Eran Dilger
They say it takes all kinds, and that’s true. Were it not for the ridiculous ravings of Joe Wilcox, it seems Microsoft’s chief executive Steve Ballmer wouldn’t be getting praise from anyone.
Wilcox could once be dismissed as just another Windows enthusiast nutter spewing the typical mean-spirtited loathing of anything from Apple, but these days his stuff is actually too funny not to read. Everything Wilcox writes is like a rickety skeleton framework of wrongheadedness desperate for being fleshed out with facts that show just how quickly the whole thing will collapse when exposed to the slightest addition of realty.
Thankfully, his musings are also well outside of dangerous territory. Instead of sounding like Glen Beck propaganda or Tea Party admonitions to kill anyone you can’t vote out of office, Wilcox just writes up innocuous silliness that desperately strives to be substantial and convincing but falls far short, sort of like watching Monty Python alumni John Cleese recite dire warnings in a serious voice while the camera pulls back to reveal he’s wearing no pants and a very silly hat.
Steve Ballmer finally shows who’s in charge of Microsoft, by Joe Wilcox
Okay, the headline itself (and no, I did not make that up) is sort of funny, but it gets better, trust me. Having just chronicled Apple’s doings over the past decade as a trio of initiatives that all turn ten this year (iTunes and iPod, Mac OS X and Apple Retail), it’s interesting, almost breathtaking, to read that Ballmer has now been Microsoft’s CEO for 11 years.
While that’s just sort of interesting, the actual message constructed by Wilcox is downright hilarious.
After eleven years of converting the most powerful tech company on earth into a flatlined organization with no direction, no strategy, half of its market share in web browsers erased, nearly no mobile presence at all, and a slipping grasp of the PC market that it once owned outright as a dominant monopoly, Wilcox says that Ballmer’s weak sauce CES keynote and the firing of his head Server and Tools Division executive are proof that Ballmer is large and in charge, adding, “competitors, you’ve been warned.”
Steve Ballmer finally shows who’s in charge of Microsoft
How to fire friends and influence morale
Ballmer is the Anti-Steve Jobs. Rather than praising his highly functional teams and their leaders, as Jobs has increasingly gone out of his way to do at recent events, Ballmer has identified a series of key Microsoft bosses as people that are holding back the company’s progress and need to be let go. Apart from, obviously, himself.
Firing people who can’t do an important job or who do not fit into the corporate culture is not unique to Microsoft of course; this year Apple’s Jobs fired Mark Papermaster, who had been recruited from IBM to run Apple’s iPod and iPhone division. As Papermaster left, Apple simply stated that Bob Mansfield would be taking his place, leaving the media to imagine why Papermaster was let go.
Members of the media all decided it was due to the iPhone 4 Antennagate controversy they’d invented. In reality, it was already known that Papermaster wasn’t seen from the start as the ideal fit for the job, and it later leaked out that the man, while certainly smart and accomplished, had simply never fit into the culture of Apple.
Imagine if Jobs, rather than just quietly dismissing Papermaster, had instead scrambled to his blog to describe Papermaster as incompetent and say how much Apple really needed somebody who could actually do the job right, and you have the beginnings of how Ballmer fired his Server and Tools leader Bob Muglia.
Papermaster’s Apple exit a result of falling out with Steve Jobs
The unkindest cut
A key difference is that Papermaster was at Apple for only a few months, while Muglia had worked at Microsoft since 1988, and had helped build its server business over the past two years of significant growth. Ballmer’s public announcement of Muglia’s demotion was brutal, even before he noted that Muglia had decided to leave Microsoft and that his replacement would be recruited via both an “internal and external search,” a rather unnecessary slap in the face of those who might be inline for a promotion to the post.
If Muglia were the first executive to be let go at Microsoft this year, one might guess he was indeed a bad apple or a poor fit for the job. But in the context of Ballmer’s housecleaning of Xbox and Zune leader J Allard, Entertainment & Devices Division head Robbie Bach, Office Division head Stephen Elop, as well as chief software architect Ray Ozzie (who had joined Microsoft in 2005 to take over the vision role of Bill Gates, and who was supposed to be holding the company’s divisions together in a coordinating role), throwing out the Server and Tools head within the same year-long period seems to be a rather intense and extended amputation on the level of “127 Hours” climber Aron Ralston.
Except of course, Ralston only cut off one arm, not five extremities. We also know Ralston survived; Microsoft’s script is still being written, and isn’t out of the woods yet, with a series of arduously mountains left to climb even as it bleeds and starves and goes a little insane from the pain of not being able to do what it formerly could back in the days of being on top of the world.
Hail the great Ballmer, Microsoft’s charmer
Wilcox’s praise of Baller makes it sound like he’s a court musician, struggling to find rhyming lyrics that best flatter the crowned emperor who sits on his throne naked and glassy-eyed, eating a greasy turkey leg as his country is overrun by invading Huns outside.
Ballmer’s unappreciative public dismissal of Muglia, Wilcox imagines, “communicates to Wall Street just how serious Ballmer is about the cloud and transforming the server business to embrace it — the same way Allard’s and Bach’s departures showed renewed commitment to transform the mobile business.”
What sort of transformation is Wilcox talking about in Microsoft’s mobile business? The rebranding of Windows Mobile and its simplification down to something its own top tier licensee LG described as “boring”? If Microsoft were serious about transforming anything, it wouldn’t be throwing away its executives, it would be throwing away its dead end strategy of trying to own everything by branding a poor copy of existing successes with the Microsoft Windows logo.
If Ballmer had even a momentary flash of leadership occur within his cranium, he’d have instructed his Windows Mobile group to immediately discontinue trying to sell Windows CE and instead build mobile Office apps for iOS and Android. Then, once the world grew dependent upon these apps, Microsoft could introduce a mobile OS and declare that it was the best way to run mobile Office, giving it at least a fair shot at reentering the mobile business.
Instead, Ballmer has simply renamed Microsoft’s existing Windows Mobile that was rejected by the market as worthless to users, gave it a fresh coat of paint, and now wonders why he’s getting the same result he got from doing the very same thing to the PlaysForSure/Zune. That’s not leadership, it’s Einstein’s definition of insanity.
Wilcox apparently gets paid by the word
“Whether or not Wall Street analysts and investors can believe in Ballmer,” Wilcox wrote, “that he is the right man to continue running Microsoft, is another matter. But there’s no question about who is in charge.”
Brilliant. Perhaps next Wilcox can name on every other company’s chief executive and confidently identify that person as being “in charge,” regardless of whether that’s a good idea or something that inspires confidence from those investing in the company.
“No one should underestimate Microsoft in 2011,” Wilcox concludes, without every explaining why. Instead, he simply adds, “Whether the good ship Microsoft breaks up on a reef or outmaneuvers competitors during the next two years, Ballmer will be at the helm. Accountability starts and ends with him now, like never before in his 11-year tenure. He’s communicated that he is absolutely in charge. It’s now deliver or die.”
Well thanks, captain obvious. I’ve known for the entire last decade that Ballmer was running Microsoft, I just didn’t realize until now that most of that time doesn’t really count because Bill Gates was around. But going forward, watch out world! Ballmer isn’t afraid to throw out all of his division heads and run the entire show as an interim executive committee of one. Hmm, what sort of qualifications does Ballmer have to indicate that he can do all of this himself? Oh right, none.
Ballmer’s Decade of Fail
Ballmer has presided over the failure of Windows Vista and the plateauing of the PC without implementing or executing a strategy for Microsoft’s future. He’s sat in the hot seat as Tablet PCs, UMPCs, Slate PC, and Surface PC have done absolutely nothing to replace the lack of growth in the company’s bread and butter desktop business, even as Apple has transformed itself from a minor competitor with 2% global share to being a major player that not only takes a 9% share of the entire market, but takes a 90% share of the high end of the market, where all the profits are.
This year, the iPad has taken a ferocious bite out of PC sales, enough to cause US PC growth to turn negative in Q4, even as Microsoft’s own tablet ambitions have hit the ground without so much as a dead cat bounce.
Ballmer has also overseen the stagnation of Office, which has done absolutely nothing to remain relevant as the world goes mobile, apart from announcing a deal with Nokia’s cancerous dinosaur Symbian that hasn’t yet resulted in anything. While he’s done nothing, Apple has released mobile versions of its iWork suite that continue to be the top selling titles on iPad. Where’s Office for iPad? Microsoft has barely been capable of delivering Office across Windows and Mac PCs, even as the price it can extort for desktop software implodes.
Ballmer has also overseen the abject failure of PlaysForSure, Portable Media Center, the Zune, KIN, and Windows Mobile, and has syphoned off billions of the company’s revenues into the barely break-even Xbox franchise. Windows Enthusiasts are abuzz about Kinect, a fast selling peripheral that is helping to move Xbox 360s. But Microsoft’s game console, while entertaining, hasn’t been able to achieve what it was supposed to do: block the development of OpenGL gaming, establish VC-1 as the world’s video codec via HD-DVD, and keep games development tied to Windows.
Microsoft may not ever have expected Xbox to make billions, but didn’t invest billions into the concept just to create fun video games. It expected its game console to support and extend its existing monopoly power in media and software development and kill off competitive threats. It hasn’t done any of those things.
Instead, gaming has gone mobile, with Apple (of all companies) now getting most of that attention due to its creation of broad mobile platform that is gaming friendly, accessible to indie developers, and sustainably profitable for third parties. Apple has also wrestled away the mobile GPU spotlight, and taken the lead in promoting OpenGL and OpenCL as credible alternatives to the DirectX/Windows-centric development that the XBox franchise was intended to tie into Microsoft’s monopoly position.
And while Sony has beaten HD-DVD with its Blu-ray format, the real winner has been consumers, who can now chose from a variety of options for H.264 video, ranging from BR disc on the high end for large HDTVs, to iTunes downloads that cover everything from HD, to desktop playback, to low-powered mobile devices. All the efforts Ballmer invested in creating Windows Media/VC-1 as an H.264-killer have not only missed their mark, but have left the company far behind the rest of the industry.
As a composite picture of failure, Microsoft’s last decade only has one common thread binding all of these facets of inaction, miscalculation, and bungled execution together: Steve Ballmer.
Balmer gets sideswiped
Microsoft’s board might have removed Ballmer if they expected one of the most profitable companies on earth to actually appreciate in value over the course of the last decade. That indicates Ballmer is not alone at Microsoft in being completely delusional, incapable of action, and simply bad at basic decision making.
While primarily responsible as Microsoft’s chief executive and executive director, Ballmer shares the blame for Microsoft’s decade of failure with other board members, including its chairman Bill Gates, venture capitalist David Marquardt, Merk special advisor Raymond Gilmartin, Bank of America CFO Charles Noski, BMW chairman Helmut Panke, Accenture chair and former CFO of JPMorgan Chase Dina Dublon, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and Princeton computer science professor Maria Klawe Ph.D.
Those people have done very little to suggest a lack of confidence in Ballmer’s bluster, apart from a weak tap on the hand delivered in the form of limp reprimand over “the unsuccessful launch of the Kin phone; loss of market share in the company’s mobile phone business; and the need for the company to pursue innovations to take advantage of new form factors,” as was noted in the company’s proxy filing.
That meek rebuke of Ballmer’s year of incompetence was accompanied by his annual compensation of just $1.3 million (which includes only 100% of his bonus, rather than the 200% he could have been awarded if he’d done anything right last year).
At CES however, a man who could be Ballmer’s successor did deliver a stunning blow to the company’s head bumbler. On the morning before Ballmer was to deliver his keynote speech, Steven Sinofsky, the president of Microsoft’s Windows Division, called a press conference and detailed the company’s goals for porting Windows to the ARM architecture. That left Ballmer with literally nothing to say in his keynote.
Imagine Bertrand Serlet or Scott Forstall calling a press release on the same day Steve Jobs was scheduled to give a major address, and then delivering all the details on the next version of Mac OS X or iOS. Hard to fathom. But at Microsoft, the man whom Wilcox says is large and indisputably in charge is getting the wind stolen from his sails (regardless of how inconsequential and weak that wind is) by his own right hand Windows man.
Apparently Ballmer isn’t quite the “decider” Wilcox imagines he is.