Since Apple’s market cap eclipsed Microsoft’s, we’ve been treated to Internet-wide bloodlust for Steve Ballmer’s head. Here’s a typical example:
Microsoft is undoubtedly full of very smart people, but as long as they are being run by Steve Ballmer, they’re going to be shackled by his ineptitude.
I wish Microsoft had their evil genius back.
Ballmer isn’t setting the world on fire, but a lot of the anti-Ballmer tirades I’ve seen are mining the same vein as the “Obama hasn’t fixed it yet” coverage we hear whenever there’s a government fuckup. These writers tend to exaggerate the power of the great leader, and underestimate the difficulty of changing entrenched institutions strapped to a particular system of rewards.
In Ballmer’s case, Microsoft is ruled by Windows and Office, because those products make all the money. Without extraordinary intervention, every innovation is subjugated to those products’ needs. We can argue all day about the quality of Windows or Office, but I think we’ll all agree that any subsidiary product that has “Windows” or “Office” in its name is shit. When Microsoft finally takes “Windows” or “Office” out of a product’s name, it’s a powerful signal that the forces of quality have won a hard fought battle over the status quo.
The prime example of this is Bing, which became competitive only after it stopped being called Windows Live Search. Compare Google Docs with Microsoft Office Live. The former is a decent, if limited, web-based word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool. The latter is just an enticement to get you to buy a copy of Office. And then there’s Windows Mobile.
Microsoft understands how much they’re ruled by the needs of their marquee products, so they build walls around products they want to succeed, like Xbox and Zune. Both are technical, if not financial, success stories.
Steve Ballmer is like the captain of the Titanic. He might have made some mistakes, but even if he wants to turn his ship, the rudder is just too damn small to overcome the ship’s momentum.