Just How Badly Did Steve Ballmer Screw Up Microsoft?

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By Jacob Maslow

Steve Ballmer took over after Bill Gates stepped down as Microsoft’s CEO. If you remember, Bill Gates led Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) from being a small Redmond, Washington software company to a global giant. Bill Gates was able to do this because he had a vision. He helped code key parts of Microsoft’s software portfolio. Moreover, he was like the quarterback who was calling all the strategic moves of Microsoft.

microsoft silicon valleyUnfortunately, when he stepped down in the year 2000 and after fourteen years of Steve Ballmer’s leadership, it would be safe to say that Microsoft hibernated or completely missed the buzz for much of those fourteen years. A lot can be said about Microsoft’s strong Xbox product but that is just a tiny fraction of the overall Microsoft empire. The question that has to be asked now that Steve Ballmer has stepped down is just how badly did he screw up Microsoft.

Windows’ tunnel vision

If you were to summarize Steve Ballmer’s primary sin, it really can be boiled down to one thing: Windows’ tunnel vision. You really can’t fault Bill Gates for having Windows’ tunnel vision because he ran Microsoft prior to the age of mobile devices. We can give Bill Gates a pass; however, we cannot give Steve Ballmer a pass. He knew where the industry was headed. Unfortunately, he was very hard-headed in insisting that all these changes be managed through Windows operating systems—talk about being clueless. The ongoing evolution of computing to mobile devices is successfully sidestepping Windows. Most of those devices run on Google Android, an open system. It almost seems that Steve Ballmer’s Windows-based view is a relic of the distant past. Consumers have moved on.

Competency: operations versus vision

I’m not knocking Steve Ballmer as a manager. In terms of operational capabilities, the guy helped grow Microsoft. He’s one of the pioneers who has truly breathed a lot of life and vitality in Microsoft. I’m not calling into question his operational skills. The problem is a big part of the CEO job in a tech company as big as Microsoft doesn’t revolve around operations. Instead, it focuses on the quality and extent of one’s personal vision. This is where Steve Ballmer fell flat. He’s more effective within bureaucracies instead of innovation that dictates the future. This is where Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) runs circles around Microsoft. The jury is still out whether Steve Ballmer truly screwed Microsoft or Microsoft was already imploding from within.

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