Technologizer

Hey, Technology Eras Were Meant to Have Beginnings and Endings

The odds were always against Microsoft dominating phones and tablets.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Paul J. Richards / Getty Images

Bill Gates appears on a video monitor in a CompUSA store in Vienna, Va. on August 24, 1995, Windows 95's launch day.

If it accomplishes nothing else, Steve Ballmer’s announcement that he will retire as Microsoft’s CEO has provided tech journalists and bloggers with an endlessly fascinating subject to discuss.

Depending on which stories you read, Ballmer’s planned exit was either abrupt or had been in the works for years. You can read countless articles pointing out how his Microsoft has been different from Apple and at least one drawing parallels — unconvincingly, at least to me — between today’s Apple and the Microsoft of Bill Gates’ glory days. You can find a story saying that Ballmer was the worst CEO ever, and ones that state what seems obvious to me: that his record was mixed, with both big-time successes and failures.

I haven’t, however, seen any articles that make what seem to me to be two other obvious points.

First of all, while it’s possible that different strategic decisions on Ballmer’s part would have put Microsoft in a different position today, I don’t think that the man broke a machine that was destined to work well forever. The odds were always slight that Microsoft would matter as much in the mobile era as it did in the more PC-centric one.

The default scenario in personal technology has always been for major platforms to suffer badly when sea changes come along. Here’s an extremely incomplete list of companies that once ruled their categories, then lost everything, or almost everything, as the world changed around them: Ashton-Tate (dBASE), Digital Research (the maker of CP/M, which Microsoft’s DOS toppled), Lotus, MicroPro (WordStar), Palm, Netscape, RIM/BlackBerry, Software Publishing Corp. (Harvard Graphics), Six Apart (Movable Type), Symbian and Visicorp (VisiCalc).

Microsoft was larger than any of those outfits, and has been more important to the industry over more time than any other company except Apple. (It remains astounding to me that those two companies, founded by very young people nearly 40 years ago, have mattered so much for so long.) But I’m a fatalist. The dynamics of the tech industry favor new blood, and Microsoft’s long run at the top wasn’t so much proof that it was an exception as a hint its time would eventually run out. No matter who was running the joint.

Second thing: If you’re Steve Ballmer, another Microsoft employee or a Microsoft investor, you might be gravely disappointed that the company failed to turn its 90-percent market share in PCs into a dominant position in smartphones and tablets. But I think it should be said that the world is far better off than it would have been if Microsoft had managed to stay on top forever.

I remember the days when Microsoft had what seemed to be permanent monopolies in operating systems, web browsers and office suites. But I don’t remember them fondly. They were bad for product quality, innovation and choice, which meant that they were bad for consumers. And, I’m convinced, ultimately bad for Microsoft.

Today, in mobile operating systems, Apple and Google are both thriving, albeit in very different ways. I’d like to see even more healthy players, which is one reason why I hope that Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone do O.K. I also contend that it’s entirely possible that the most popular mobile OS of 2018 is something that doesn’t exist yet, possibly from a company which hasn’t been founded yet.

Even now, though, the simple fact that there are two successful mobile OS companies makes this a far better time to be a user of technology devices than the 1990s was.

In other words: Any scenario in which everyone agreed that Steve Ballmer was an extraordinary successful CEO would likely have been a downer for everyone outside Redmond city limits. I’m happier with the scrappy, inventive, underdog Microsoft we ended up with.

11 comments
RemixCity
RemixCity

Harry and I don't always agree - don't see why we should - but his writing is always interesting and well done. Kudos on keeping the bar high Mr. McCracken.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Ballmer is a superb execution manager when guided by a visionary, but a mediocre visionary himself. His greatest achievement is transforming Microsoft from a cute software publisher for the enthusiasts to the dominant power in enterprise business information systems. From SharePoint to Project to Exchange, the success of Microsoft is based on the simple excellence of packaging useful applications in an attractive user-oriented shell and marketing the package forcefully. While this doesn't inspire the kind of worship that surrounded Jobs, that's the real job of the CEO and the real distinction of Ballmer's leadership. Unlike 20 years ago, today no one will disparage Microsoft server products, or .NET programming environment, or the Dynamic business application suite. There is a reason why, even in fields where Microsoft in not the indisputable leader, it is a credible challenger to the established king – regardless of legitimate criticism on questions of code quality. It will be financially alluring, easy to implement, and will do the basic job without being overly sophisticated. Microsoft is also the best software development machine ever, with the finest track record of delivering marketable products (almost) on time and on budget. However, Ballmer is totally clueless when it comes to seeing the outlines of a radical development, such as Jobs saw in smartphones, or even quick to correct his mistakes as Gates did when he realized the enormity of the Internet. Touch operating system, the Cloud paradigm and SaaS offering are point in case. It's time for Ballmer to go - with full honors - from the company that he didn't invent but skillfully built.

bobkemp2123
bobkemp2123

"Even now, though, the simple fact that there are two successful mobile OS companies makes this a far better time to be a user of technology devices than the 1990s was."

Sorry, but the greed of the 1990s Microsoft is alive and well. The phone app stores with draconian restrictions and hefty 30% profit grabs are something that 90's Gates could only dream of. You've also got Google giving away products and services at below cost to obliterate competition.  

Not sure how this can be classified as progress! Same old greed as always.

IntangibleGuy
IntangibleGuy

@bobkemp2123 

"Greed" is a term relative to the side of the fence you are. "Greed" is the unbridled desire to make money by all available means. Despicable ? Perhaps. Reasonable ? Definitely.

The article however gives a balanced statement about the ups and downs of a tech behemoth over a 30 year period of time. Ballmer is definitely a whimsical and quirky oddball. His public performances in stage were always iffy at least.

His accomplishments though were a mixed bag of keeping a large company large and successful and having severe difficulties in judging and predicting future developments. I think part of his problem is his quick-tempered character. 

+++ A word on B.Gates +++

Though little has been written about B. Gates himself who actually brought Ballmer into position in 2000. I wouldn't directly use the word cronyism for that but it comes pretty close. Just because a guy is your roommate in college doesn't qualify him for being a decent CEO. 

Even worse ... in the past 2000 era Gates called himself chief tech adviser/officer and therefore is to be held responsible for all the crap emerging from MS's labs. IE6 to name one. 

When it comes to failed products the role of Gates should be much more under scrutiny.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@bobkemp2123 Good points both, and worthy of further discussion. I certainly didn't mean to suggest we'd entered an era when tech companies were selfless rather than piggy.

When Apple invented the modern app store, I was worried that it would crush innovation, opportunity, etc. It certainly has its downsides, but I think that on the whole, we're better off today than we were in the era when Microsoft was crushing Lotus, OS/2, etc. Reasonable people may of course disagree...

IntangibleGuy
IntangibleGuy

@harrymccracken 

The app-store is a godsend insofar as it frees consumers from the burden of downloading sw from malware infested websites of dubious dudes and shady companies.

Not that the apps-store guarantees a peaceful heaven of security but it still (!) is way better than rummaging the ever more hostile internet for sw.