Rather than fall for some great man theory of technology, it’s fairer to observe that Ballmer failed not because of some obvious product flop (even though Surface stinks) or some famous design snafu (even though Windows 8 is sort of a nightmare). Instead, he failed because he inherited a company whose success relied on desktop computers stuffed with Windows and Excel. And his tenure coincided with the rise of another sort of computer — mobile computers — that Microsoft couldn’t continue to monopolize.
It didn’t have to be that way. Microsoft invented tablet computing with the Microsoft Tablet PC nine years before the iPad came out. Windows Phone had been running cellphones since 2000 — seven years before anyone had ever seen an iPhone. Then there was Windows CE (“WinCE”) which dated back to 1996.
The problem was, the products all sucked. Nobody ever bought into Tablet PCs. There were tablet computers before the iPad, but there was no tablet market before then. Consumers starting abandoning Windows Mobile just as soon as they’d seen an iPhone. Then Android came along and sealed the deal.
Ballmer’s reaction? By the time MS had even a halfway decent competitor to the iPod Classic, the iPhone had kicked the legs out from under the MP3 player market. And the new products weren’t just late, they were at best undistinguished. At worst… well, there’s the Surface RT. Or the Kin, if anyone can even remember those. Balmer wasn’t just slow-footed, he was wrong-footed.
That’s a deadly combination, and he can’t quit too soon.