In defense of Ballmer

The resignation of Steve Ballmer has unleashed a lot of criticism. Normally, I’d be happy to join in, because I think Microsoft’s approach to the interaction of humans and computers has pretty much always been wrong and, because of its ubiquity, has trained an entire generation of people to think of computers as the enemy. But that has nothing to do with Ballmer.

Ballmer served his purpose as loyal lieutenant, cheerleader, and class clown1 during the Bill Gates era and was a competent caretaker as CEO. Should Microsoft have had a more visionary leader since 2000? Probably, but that’s for its board and shareholders to decide. They certainly knew they weren’t getting a computer industry visionary when they gave the job to a sales guy.

In fact, Gates maintained his position as “chief software architect” during the first six years of Ballmer’s tenure as CEO, and Microsoft’s failure to foresee the importance of web services and mobile devices are better ascribed to him than to Ballmer. It could be argued that missing these trends was nothing more than an extension of Gates’s earlier failure to foresee the importance of the internet in general. But Gates was lucky in that earlier mistake—when he miscalculated the importance of the internet in the 90s, the focus was on the client side, and he could use MS’s monopoly power and vast developer resources to cover up his mistake with Internet Explorer and continue the company’s dominance on the desktop.

That maneuver, while necessary, probably gave Microsoft a false sense of security—a belief that the desktop was all that really mattered. If you see Ballmer’s job as being the preservation of MS’s position on the desktop, he’s certainly been a success. Microsoft’s real customers, IT departments, still trust Microsoft and still buy from them, mainly because Microsoft treats them very well. You say Ballmer’s a failure because he hasn’t been “disruptive”? His customers don’t want disruption—they thought Vista and Windows 8 were too much change.

Of course, some criticism is warranted. While it isn’t reasonable to expect Microsoft to develop radical new products like the iPhone and the iPad, it is reasonable to criticize it for not responding better when they did come out. The desktop mentality—the most obvious symptom of which has them slapping the “Windows” name on everything they make, whether it has windows or not—got in the way. But is that criticism properly directed at Ballmer? The desktop strategy was what the board and shareholders wanted, and the chief executive officer executed it.

Yes, there are executives who lead their companies in new directions, and in the era of Apple’s ascendancy it’s easy to think that every CEO should be like Steve Jobs. But Jobs was unique. He was not only a company founder, he was one of the handful of people who invented the personal computer industry. His vision of what computers should be is—albeit usually in a corrupted form—on every PC in the world. That’s an authority and history no one else can match.

Ballmer wasn’t hired for his vision. My guess is that Microsoft felt that the need for vision was over, that it could continue in the direction Gates set it as long as it had a steady hand at the tiller. Ballmer was that steady hand; he just had no one to advise him on course corrections.

  1. Ballmer’s behavior, which you can spend hours laughing at on YouTube, was pretty clearly a means of disarming his audiences and making them think he was from the school of hard knocks. Hardly