Ballmer was executive vice president of sales and support before taking on the CEO reigns from Gates, so it makes sense that he is a numbers guy and would place a priority on delivering good-looking financial results to shareholders. It would be difficult to argue that he did not deliver on this important responsibility.
Microsoft Strategic Execution and Innovation: Neither Strategic Nor Innovative
From an innovation and strategic execution standpoint, however, the results are decidedly more negative. Take just a few examples:
- With the exception of much of Microsoft's server and tools business, which continues to churn out world-class software and services, the company has seen itself eclipsed in just about every major area in which it does business.
- During Ballmer's reign, we saw Microsoft fall behind in the mobile revolution. It languished with a Windows CE-based phone platform that no one cared about, took until 2010 to release an update to that platform and then scrapped the whole thing to re-release a Windows NT-based phone platform in 2012. The results are poor at this point in time, in terms of adoption, critical apps in the marketplace and sales. And far as tablets go, despite pioneering the Tablet PC in 2001, it let Apple dominate the tablet space and saw Google bring a tablet form factor to Android as well.
- Ballmer famously attempted to buy a failing search engine that's still flailing about (Yahoo) - and only by a stroke of luck was that acquisition undone. In response, Ballmer set out to develop Microsoft's own search engine, Bing, which is a distant competitor to the other major search providers.
- Microsoft has seen the precipitous decline in PC hardware sales, and Ballmer has failed to reenergize the marketplace with any product that would arrest this decline. He's also failed to release consumer oriented software and services that excite the mainstream.
- As if declining PC sales weren't enough, Ballmer made a gutsy call to directly compete with its OEM partners, who over the past two decades contributed significantly to Microsoft's wealth and dominance. As a result, OEM relations are tenuous, and the Windows RT operating system, one of Microsoft's tablet plays, hangs in the balance.
- Microsoft still has a couple divisions that seem to be perpetually losing money.
For my money, the deciding factor is the resurgence of Apple. Microsoft and Apple fought a fierce battle during the 1980s and early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, Apple was left for dead and nearly bankrupt. You may recall Michael Dell's famous words that Apple ought to just sell off its assets and return the money to shareholders because it was virtually worthless.
At Microsoft's pinnacle of power, Apple was essentially dead. But it came back.
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