Steve Ballmer Reflects on Time at Microsoft; Says Windows Vista was Biggest Regret
August 24, 2013 4:11 PM
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He discusses his biggest accomplishment, regrets and what's next
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced this week that he
plans to retire
sometime over the next year. This is pretty big, considering he's been with the company for 33 years and saw it through many stages of technological growth. So how would he sum up three decades of working with one of the largest tech players in the industry?
Mary Jo Foley was able to talk with Ballmer after the announcement of his retirement, and asked him to reflect on his time with Microsoft as well as what he thinks the future of the company holds.
Over the course of his career, Ballmer said his biggest accomplishment at Microsoft has been contributing to the rise of personal computing, from PCs to smartphones/tablets and everything in between.
"I'm proud of being I would say a significant part even of the birth of intelligent personal computing, the notion that people use computing technologies, whether that's phones, PCs," sid Ballmer. "I mean, we kind of birthed that over the course of the '80s and the '90s, and that's had such an unbelievable impact on people's lives. I would say a billion plus people and now more with phones, even if they're not all our phones, I'm very proud of what we've accomplished there.
"If I had to sort of couple it, I'm very proud that we were able to make this incredible impact on the planet and at the same time do a good job for our shareholders."
However, Ballmer's biggest regret over the course of his career was the operating system that many users despised: Windows Vista.
"Oh, you know, I've actually had a chance to make a lot of mistakes, and probably because, you know, people all want to focus in on period A, period B, but I would say probably the thing I regret most is the, what shall I call it, the loopedy-loo that we did that was sort of Longhorn to Vista," said Ballmer. "I would say that's probably the thing I regret most. And, you know, there are side effects of that when you tie up a big team to do something that doesn't prove out to be as valuable."
Ballmer said he has been thinking about retiring for awhile now, but started taking the idea more seriously over the last few months. The official decision was made only two days ago, he said.
Over the next year -- leading up to Ballmer's retirement -- Microsoft's board will talk about the company's needs and determine who the next CEO should be. Ballmer didn't give any clues as to who the successor may be, but said that the search could take less than a year.
As for Ballmer's future, he doesn't have any set plans right now.
"I haven't spent a lot of time -- I don't have time to spend actually even thinking about what comes next. I'm not going to have time to do that until the board gets a successor in place," said Ballmer. "My whole life has been about my family and about Microsoft. And I do relish the idea that I'll have another chapter, a chapter two, if you will, of my life where I'll get to sort of experience other sides of life, learn more about myself, all of that, but it's not like I leave with a specific plan in mind."
Ballmer joined Microsoft on June 11, 1980 as the company's 30th employee and the first business manager hired by Microsoft Chairman and Co-Founder Bill Gates. Even though Ballmer has been a public figure for Microsoft for many years, some believe the company is in need of an executive shake-up -- including a new leader. Mobile technology, such as smartphones and tablets, are taking over as the PC market continues to decline. But Microsoft has had a difficult time stirring up enthusiasm for Windows Phone against competitors like Apple and Samsung, and the Windows maker was late to the tablet game -- releasing its Surface tablet in October 2012 after the iPad had already been out for over two years. To make matters worse, Microsoft's Surface was initially released with the Windows RT operating system (the full Windows 8 Pro-powered Surface wasn't released until February 2013) and it was a major flop. Many say RT isn't a full Windows 8 experience, lacking the ability to run legacy apps.
Microsoft also slipped up recently with its Xbox One announcement. The new console, which is expected to be released this fall, initially had a
used games ban
and a new "always-on" digital rights management (DRM) system, which posed a problem for many people who are either in rural areas with slow Internet connections, travelling or tend to experience Internet issues with providers. Microsoft later
retracted these features
after major complaints, but the fiasco still didn't sit well with gamers.
The situation was made worse when its top competitor -- Sony's upcoming
-- was announced without any used game bans or a DRM system, and is also faster and less expensive (by $100) than the Xbox One.
Perhaps a new CEO and executive shake-up will help Microsoft along. Nevertheless, Ballmer has been an important figure at Microsoft for years and helped make it what it is today.
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RE: Not Windows 8
8/25/2013 12:41:25 PM
I think the point is the gap between what Longhorn was supposed to be and what Vista was.
There is a famous MS-internal rant given after, I guess OSX 10.5 was released, where Ballmer was asking how come Apple, with a comparatively tiny team, was able to build things like smart backup (ie no full disk scanning) and Spotlight search into its OS, whereas Longhorn had been at it for years and never managed to get those to work.
(The answer, I'm guessing, is to a large extent precisely that Apple DID have a small team. This meant that Apple was forced to figure out solutions that could easily be added onto the existing file system, rather than MS' boil-the-ocean solution which involved ripping up most of the existing OS and completely replacing it.
This same discipline was extended to iOS, where, even though the user-facing part of the OS started off as very different, and Apple had carte-blanche to redo everything with no backward compatibility requirements, they were actually remarkably limited in how much of the base OS they modified. Some changes for security, some changes for power, but basically they kept the Darwin kernel as is.
You see similar discipline as they reused the A5 CPU in slightly different forms across the product line, from iPhone to iPads to iPod Touch to Apple TV. Compare with most companies (like say Samsung or HTC) which have different teams on different products, and each team would try to get their own customized HW in there, either to include something they really wanted, or to save money --- so Samsung or HTC will have different CPUs even in different country versions of what are supposed to be the same phone.
We can all imagine bad things that could ruin Apple, but one of them would be "Matrix-sequel disease" --- the insanity that infects you when you have too much money available, and you forget all the thought and care that you were FORCED to employ when you were poorer, to make your initial products.
I don't know how common the undoing of this process is --- yes we spent money stupidly, but now times are tough and we need to cutback, so we will do so through intelligent engineering and product restructuring (rather than layoffs and the rest of it). It doesn't seem to be --- Apple is really the only case I can think of, and that required Jobs to come in with a hatchet, and to have the rest of the company willing to believe in his vision.
Which suggests a gloomy future for MS. Maybe if Bill G returned and pulled a Steve J there's a chance, but I don't see that happening. I think their future is more like IBM --- descent into the irrelevance of enterprise, twenty years or so of extracting money from people who have no choice in the matter, then eventual demise as all those companies you were extracting from gradually manage to move to alternatives.)
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