Column: Thank you Ballmer. An open (source?) letter.
Thank you Ballmer. Thanks to your bright leadership Microsoft is better than it has ever been. Stocks have gone up incredibly in these few days since you announced your retirement, stock holders know about your incredible job so they’re just giving you a few millions as a parting gift.
Look, I know it has been a bumpy ride and running a multinational conglomerate with over 100,000 employees is something I can only begin to imagine. I do think I’m adequate at looking at data and judging software though. Under the command of the now philanthropist Bill Gates, previously known for being a reckless CEO that damaged the industry and did as many anti-competitive things as he could think of, Microsoft maintained a completely dominant position in the marketplace, desktop, mobile, it didn’t matter, Microsoft was the big guy. Thankfully you’ve done a wonderful job at undoing some of wrongs of Gates.
Your best trace: Predicting trends.
During a very famous conference in San Francisco Apple revealed the iPhone, which Steve Jobs boldly claimed was a reinvention of the phone, excitement and hype was over the roof, after all, this was the same company that introduced the iPod. Fortunately you were the voice of reason, your reaction was intelligent and well thought:
Q: People get passionate when Apple comes out with something new — the iPhone; of course, the iPod. Is that something that you’d want them to feel about Microsoft?
A: It’s sort of a funny question. Would I trade 96% of the market for 4% of the market? (Laughter.) I want to have products that appeal to everybody.
Now we’ll get a chance to go through this again in phones and music players. There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.
In the case of music, Apple got out early. They were the first to really recognize that you couldn’t just think about the device and all the pieces separately. Bravo. Credit that to Steve (Jobs) and Apple. They did a nice job.
But it’s not like we’re at the end of the line of innovation that’s going to come in the way people listen to music, watch videos, etc. I’ll bet our ads will be less edgy. But my 85-year-old uncle probably will never own an iPod, and I hope we’ll get him to own a Zune.
Ok, ok. There’s times we all wish a magical delete button existed on the web. Hindsight after all is only a way to appear intelligent, unlike well articulated arguments such as yours. As sales kept going up you quickly realized OEMs would need an operating system to compete with Apple’s iPhone and corrected course. That’s the mark of a good leader.
Yes, it took you 4 years, and by then Google, building on top of the cancer known as Linux, had already provided the market with a modern alternative, as opposed to the now diseased Windows Mobile 6.5, that you thankfully blessed with the ability to read markets knew, as soon as it flopped, wasn’t good enough. Once again displaying incredible forecasting powers and unmatched ability to understand what consumers want you boldly announced Windows Phone 7 Series and you had this to say about the, obviously inferior, Android operating system:
No, you don’t need to be a computer scientist to use a Windows Phone. I think you do to use an Android phone, pretty inconsistent, don’t look alike, don’t work!… I mean you could say every good thing I said versus Apple but you can have a list that is longer than my arm. The cheapest phones on the market this holiday will still probably be the Android phones, the very rock bottom cheapest and that’s part, of you know, the kind of work we’re gonna need to do is to support lower and lower price designs but other than that it is very hard to be excited for me about the Android phones. You know Apple is a good a competitor, different kind of competitor.
According to IDC, Android gets about 80% of all smartphone shipments, that’s a lot of computer scientists, you couldn’t have possibly predicted such a radical change in college graduations.
At this point I don’t think there was any reasonable human on the face of this planet not to give weight to your opinion, why wouldn’t they? The empirical evidence had made abundantly clear that you just needed to invest in whatever you thought wasn’t good. Yet, regardless of your countless failures, regardless of the Zune, Windows Mobile, Bing and Windows Phone, regardless of your indefensible predictive record, that would’ve gotten a regular employee fired, few doubted your skills as a CEO, that you would get the company on the right track again.
Correcting your mistakes. Like a boss.
It’s a well known fact that Bill Gates was believer in the tablet PC, is also a well known fact that Microsoft fell flat on its face every time it tried to sell tablets to the mass market. It was Apple the one that designed the modern tablet and yet again it was Google the company that provided the operating system for other OEMs to compete. Android a distribution of Linux took what you once thought as yours (again), that caught you off guard (again) but not unarmed.
Tablets, as a footnote, were a big deal because the iPad and Android tablets were destroying the netbook market, the market in which your partners using Windows were making some money.
In a display of problem solving giftedness you finally found a solution: Stick a tablet interface into desktop computers. What could go wrong? Bill Gates tried to make tablets and failed because he insisted on using an interface designed for mouses and keyboards on devices designed for touch input, he had it backwards, and you knew that, the right formula was to put a touch interface in a device designed for mouses and keyboards.
You also had a 900 million dollars epiphany, specifically, that what tablets needed was a desktop interface running office on your own hardware. Sadly, the 900 million dollars were the cost of your idea, not the profits from it.
Mr. Ballmer, I’m sure you will be remembered as the man who fixed Ubuntu’s bug #1 liberalization: Microsoft has a majority market share which it started like this:
Microsoft has a majority market share in the new desktop PC marketplace. This is a bug which Ubuntu and other projects are meant to fix. As the philosophy of the Ubuntu Project states, “Our work is driven by a belief that software should be free and accessible to all.”
I know that Microsoft is still making tons of money, I know is still strong in many areas of the enterprise market, but the future isn’t so clear, and your dominance feels more and more like flashback. Thanks to your cooperation Mark Shuttleworth recently marked is first bug as fixed, saying (among other things):
Android may not be my or your first choice of Linux, but it is without doubt an open source platform that offers both practical and economic benefits to users and industry. So we have both competition, and good representation for open source, in personal computing.
Even though we have only played a small part in that shift, I think it’s important for us to recognize that the shift has taken place. So from Ubuntu’s perspective, this bug is now closed.
It was under your watch, under your terrible diagnoses, caused by your gigantic shortsightedness and your systematically ignoring of all symptoms that the cancer finally entered into metastasis. The open source community owes you much. And we can only hope for a successor as good as you were.