Now, if I am not careful this column could well be mistaken for an obituary what with all the tech companies that I write about that are dead, almost dead or soon to be dead. The particularly painful ones are the once beloved companies with billion-dollar war chests which take a very long time to die. Last week, it was BlackBerry. This week Microsoft.
Frankly, it sounds ridiculous to even suggest that Microsoft—the world’s biggest tech company whose Windows operating system runs on 90 per cent of the billion computers, and which even today makes billions of dollars—is about to die. But until Steve Ballmer, its CEO, stepped down the past week, many were convinced that Microsoft was going to die. Not in a day or in a year, but like many Detroit auto giants over some decades. Or a fate worse than death awaits it. That of irrelevance.
Ballmer has been a terrible CEO for Microsoft. Everyone in the tech community agrees with that. Probably except Ballmer himself and the Microsoft Board which wasted 10 of the most precious years in the company’s history. A ‘wasted decade’ in which Apple became the world’s most valued company, Google is on the verge of becoming a monopoly and Facebook has taken the world by storm. A decade in which Microsoft has struggled to compete with mobile devices from Apple and online services from Google. A decade that has been a how-not-to guide to making a global behemoth a bit player.
And when Ballmer finally quit after being at the helm for 13 years, a big cheer went up all over the tech world. Even the stock market cheered the news with the stagnant Microsoft stock jumping seven points. Even though all this jubilation suggests that Ballmer has been single-handedly responsible for the state that Microsoft finds itself in today, it would be unfair to heap the whole blame on his head. By the turn of the century, Microsoft had reached such gigantic proportions that it had become like a big battleship which found that in the new century, in a fast changing technological landscape, changing course was a very tricky maneuver. And unfortunately for the company, Ballmer was at the wheel.
A 33-year Microsoft veteran, Ballmer who climbed the CEO’s throne in 2000 had been initially resistant to change like a tribal leader in deep Amazon forests. Lulled by the success and ubiquity of his cash cow called Windows, Ballmer laughed in the face of change. He is famous for being the only big tech CEO who publicly laughed and ridiculed the iPhone when it was launched in 2007. Time and again in the last 13 years whenever a company like Google or Apple innovated something Ballmer laughed at it. Eventually by the time he realised that change had come, it was too late and he found himself imitating and trailing market leaders. The Zune music player, Bing search engine, Azure, Surface, all of these products, are imitators of much more successful products like the iPod, Google search, Amazon web services and the iPad. Even with Microsoft’s bread and butter called Windows, Ballmer has presided over some disasters, namely Vista and Windows 8.
The biggest mistake of Ballmer though could be his lack of realisation that we are in a post-PC world. That is probably not his personal fault. It could be the times he comes from. Now Microsoft is in a state akin to its famous blue screen. With Ballmer quitting, it gets a chance at restarting. Let us just hope that it does. To provide a counter balance to Google. For all our sakes.
(The writer is a tech geek. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)