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Ballmer's Regret: Missing the Smartphone and Tablet Wave

One month removed from Microsoft after decades with the company that included the last 14 as its second CEO, Steve Ballmer made his first public appearance yesterday in an interview with his longtime friend Peter Tufano, a professor at Oxford University.

In an auditorium full of mostly MBA students, Tufano and attendees asked Ballmer a variety of questions during the one-hour session. The most notable moment of the speech came when the former CEO commented on his biggest mistakes and successes while running Microsoft. Not surprisingly, letting Apple and Google dominate the tablet and smartphone market stung the most, especially considering Bill Gates a decade earlier had strong designs on that market.

"There are some things that didn't go as well as we had intended them to," Ballmer said. "We would have a stronger position in the phone market today if I could redo the last 10 years. Yet one of the things you have to say to yourself is 'do you give up?'" When asked how it felt to have Gates trumpet Microsoft's visions of creating a tablet and mobile device market before turning over the company to him, Ballmer said he regretted not moving faster.

Ballmer gave credit to Apple for marrying the hardware and lamented that Microsoft should have done so earlier as well. Now that Microsoft now offers its Surface devices and is expected to close on its $7.2 billion acquisition of Nokia, which he championed last year, Ballmer said it is important to look ahead and not bemoan mistakes of the past. As it is famously known, Ballmer back in 2007 said the iPhone would flop and was blind sided on how quickly the iPad started cutting into PC usage. Likewise, Google's rapid success with Android appeared unexpected to him.

"There was a little bit of magic too for Android and Samsung coming together," Ballmer said. "But if you really want to bring the vision to market, it is helpful to be able to conceive and deliver the hardware, and our company is in the process of building new muscle, so we're not just thinking of tablets in advance and letting Apple commercialize it."

Ballmer said while most tech companies are "one-trick ponies," including Google and Oracle, he described Apple as one that had two tricks and Microsoft had two and a half. The first was its success with the modern PC with Windows and Office, the second was in the datacenter and the half goes to its rapidly growing Xbox gaming business.

"The fact that we have two and a half, I'm really proud of it and the fact that we've built muscle that lets us do new tricks in the future will distinguish us from all other companies on the planet," he said.

Ballmer, who shared his views on successful leadership, reminded the audience that he has never written a line of production code. "But that didn't let me off the hook for whether we were building the right products with the right quality in the right way," he said. "I won't say things were always perfect, that's not the point. You can't shy away from anything where you alienate people and in some cases if you don't know the details, you learn to ask the right questions. Not everyone does. On the other hand, every company needs to have a measurement system people understand."

That measurement system referred to a company's accountants. "Generally accountants are refs at the gate. They tell you whether the ball went into the goal," he said.

Ballmer had a polarizing tenure at Microsoft and some would question whether he lived up to the leadership principles he spoke of yesterday despite the strong profit growth on his watch. Either way, he reminded the audience he owns a 4-percent stake in Microsoft,  remains on the board and has every interest in seeing Microsoft succeed saying "I'm available to help if the company needs me."

 

 

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 03/05/2014 at 12:50 PM


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