Bye-Bye, Ballmer, Bye-Bye


The WSJ scored an exclusive interview with outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer, and I suggest you read the whole thing. It’s interesting, and at a couple of points, even moving. But here’s the short version:

Microsoft lagged behind Apple Inc. and Google Inc. GOOG in important consumer markets, despite its formidable software revenue. Mr. Ballmer tried to spell out his plan to remake Microsoft, but a director cut him off, telling him he was moving too slowly.

“Hey, dude, let’s get on with it,” lead director John Thompson says he told him. “We’re in suspended animation.” Mr. Ballmer says he replied that he could move faster.

But the contentious call put him on a difficult journey toward his August decision to retire.

The board’s beef was speed. The directors “didn’t push Steve to step down,” says Mr. Thompson, a longtime technology executive who heads the board’s CEO-search committee, “but we were pushing him damn hard to go faster.”

Investors, too, were pushing for transformation. “At this critical juncture, Wall Street wants new blood to bring fundamental change,” says Brent Thill, a longtime Microsoft analyst at UBS AG. “Steve was a phenomenal leader who racked up profits and market share in the commercial business, but the new CEO must innovate in areas Steve missed—phone, tablet, Internet services, even wearables.”

He recalls thinking: “I’ll remake my whole playbook. I’ll remake my whole brand.”

The board liked his new plan. But as Mr. Ballmer prepared to implement it, his directors on the January conference call demanded he expedite it.

Pushing hardest, say participants, were Mr. Thompson, who had held top jobs at International Business Machines Corp. IBM +0.44% and Symantec Corp. SYMC -0.17% , and Stephen Luczo, CEO of Seagate Technology STX -1.51% PLC. Mr. Luczo declines to comment.

“But, I didn’t want to shift gears until I shipped Windows,” Mr. Ballmer says he told the directors on the call, explaining that he hadn’t moved faster in late 2012 because he was focused on releasing in October the next generation of Windows, Microsoft’s longtime cash cow.

That, the wise Muppet once said, is why you fail.

Apple didn’t try to get iPods — more than half their revenue in 2006 — just right before launching the iPhone in 2007. They didn’t worry that the new product might undercut sales of the old product. Steve Jobs & Co. went Full Speed Ahead on creating and defining a new market. iPod sales never recovered — but so what?

Ballmer wasted a year, maybe two, on the unloved Windows 8 while the rest of the tech industry went Full Speed Ahead into mobile.

It’s a sad tale, full of Ballmer’s sound and fury, signifying blindness.