Ballmer Saw This Coming

Steve Ballmer reccently stepped down from the board at Microsoft and a few tech sites reported this as being unexpected. It seems mainstream media is suffering from short-term memory loss; no one can remember what happened more than 2 years ago, 2 months is about the limit. Too much has happened over the past few years to view current headlines in an appropriate context so I thought I'd help remind people what Balmer was up to at MS.

Steve Balmer has always been old guard. He's the guy you send to a product conference, notice I didn't say technology conference. When Bill Gates stepped down from Microsoft's big chair, their largest growing product was Windows (Office has always been it's own beast, it just happens to serve Windows). When you have one main product all your efforts should be focused on making that product sell better, right? That's the conventional wisdom when revenue is calculated on a "units sold" basis. Protect the brand, the Windows brand.

I started to see the "everything Windows" branding around the time building up to Vista. Balmer was heavily touting Windows as the future and this was the first time I realized that he will sell something regardless of any technical merits because he's a believer.

Vista was rushed out the door and didn't live up to the hype. It had some inherent technical problems that smell like a rushed product to me: poor coordination with driver vendors, bad XP compatibility, media center was broken, extra features that never shipped. Despite tangible problems the MS media engine hit that Windows drum even harder, only serving to fuel public distrust in Microsoft and Windows. The knee jerk reaction to this was to attach Windows onto every other successful brand. Remember Windows Live? Live started as an XBox thing and Windows live was, well, a weird hodge podge. Azure became Windows Azure, they couldn't even talk about .Net or Visual Studio without bringing up Windows. Rather than letting all their successes serve to strengthen Microsoft, they were used to cover up a short fall Windows.

All this sure isn't helped by the fact that Apple was firing on all cylinders and everything they produced: iPhone, MacBook Air, iPad; all served to improve Apple as a brand. A single brand with a diverse offering rather than diverse offerings with a single brand. Perceived focus vs lack-there-of.

Nothing lived up to the MS hype engine and they had finally run out of executives to blame. They'd lost Ray Ozzie over Azure, a great product that just wasn't finished. Stephen Sinofsky after Windows 8 and Surface didn't click with consumers. Products face planted and Balmer received a slap on the wrist: MS Kin One and Two, Zune,Windows Phone 7, Xbox One arguably underperformed because of pre-launch drama. As CEO, Balmer is responsible for all the turbulence during Microsoft's mid life crisis. Whether he was fired or left on his own, Steve Balmer needs a little time away from Microsoft. I hope he enjoys the Clippers and wish him the best of luck.