24 March 2006

Microsoft's Failings - Who Should Carry the Can?

Obviously one of the big stories while I was away was the delay in shipping Vista, missing the crucial consumer holiday shopping season. While this may be a bigger financial blow to the hardware manufacturers than Microsoft itself, it is another damning indictment over the way the company is run. When Vista is finally released it will be almost 6 years after Windows XP. Yesterday it was announced that now Office 2007 will fail to begin shipping this year, slipping also into 2007.

Granted, this software stuff is pretty damned hard. But let's face it, if a company with MS' resources drops both functionality and slips on dates time and time again, something is wrong. This got me thinking about who should really be taking the blame (I notice a bit of deck-chair shuffling yesterday).

I have a certain amount of respect for Bill Gates as a businessman. He has been uniquely shrewd in building the company over the years with tactics of doing the same thing only better. He smashed Lotus with GUI-based Excel and Word (I was an early customer for hundreds of these on the Mac and can testify how much better it was than the competition). He smashed IBM with Windows vs OS/2 as well of course with his clever licensing of the original MS-DOS/PC-DOS. We can go on and on. His track record has been pretty damned good - obviously not the Steve Jobs showman, and not really a visionary, but certainly the ultimate business geek. His (and MS's) legal knowledge have also allowed them to nail the competition for good on numerous occasions even if it's led to pay-offs to achieve this. You also have to hand it to Bill for his great philanthropy (though with his truly enormous wealth, is there anything else one could really do?).

But, when I look at Steve Ballmer, the performance of the company under his direction (he took charge in January 2000) has been pretty poor. The share price is around the same as when he became CEO and way below it's peak. During his tenure, Microsoft has paid something like $10billion in payments to companies it "might" have harmed, and has also fallen foul of both US and European consumer bodies resulting in large fines. Employee morale has been pretty poor for a number of years (stock options ain't what they used to be). I have not seen him speak, and only hear second-hand of his pronouncements. And, perhaps it's hard under the shadow of Bill (all the difficult decisions and none of the kudos for any success). But, whenever I see something he's involved in - bashing an employee for leaving for Google for instance, it all seems that this is a man who is out of his depth and rather lacking in any redeeming qualities.

Is anyone reading here a supporter of Ballmer? Am I missing some great qualities and failing to recognise his achievement(s)? Why have MS shareholders not been more vocal about his role in MS' failings? If you don't blame Bill, who else is there who's going to accept responsibility?

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