Illustration by Frank Chimero

Microsoft Needs Bill Gates Back

Steve Ballmer needs to be replaced as Microsoft CEO ... by Bill Gates. Farhad Manjoo explains why.

One hapless serf made a tragic mistake at a Microsoft company meeting last fall. He pulled out an iPhone in front of CEO Steve Ballmer. According to observers, Ballmer freaked out. The chief grabbed the iPhone, placed it on the ground, and pretended to stomp on it. This was typical Ballmer, whose notions of company loyalty were honed in his hometown of Detroit, where everyone drove Fords. Ballmer doesn't let his children jam to iPods or use Google to search the Web. Microsoft recently decided to reimburse workers only when they use Windows-based phones. According to The Wall Street Journal, about 10% of Microsoft employees carry iPhones anyway, but they hide them in ugly cases, like concealing a comic book in a newspaper.

Ballmer's insecurity about his employees' iPhones suggests a larger myopia. His Microsoft seems rudderless, without any real goals other than to react fretfully to whatever Google and Apple do in categories they already dominate. Remember when Microsoft was the fearless Death Star, the gravitational force that determined the direction of everything else in tech? Those days are long gone. Ballmer took over as CEO in 2000, as Bill Gates began his long departure from the firm. It hasn't been a happy decade. While Google and Apple reached stratospheric heights, Microsoft careened from one disappointment to the next. Think of Ballmer's on-again, off-again effort to woo Yahoo, the worst romantic comedy ever (How to Lose Your Credibility in 10 Months). Or his continued investment in the Zune, the Washington Generals of handheld entertainment. While Ballmer kept his eyes on rivals, the company's cash cow endured the ignominy of an embarrassing Vista launch. Can you think of any other tech firm where the CEO could bungle the company's main product and still keep his job?

Solving Microsoft's problems won't be easy. But here's one way to start: Bring back Bill Gates. This idea might strike you as absurd, given that Gates has moved on to saving the world, which is far more important than saving Microsoft. But don't discount the value of saving the software giant. Despite its recent troubles, Microsoft remains enormous, wealthy, and home to some of the smartest workers on the planet. It could once again become an engine for innovation in the industry — if only it found a leader committed to a singular vision for its future. Ballmer, clearly, is not that leader. There are few people in tech who dream as big as Bill Gates — and no one who has proved more capable of making big ideas happen.

Consider Microsoft's founding mission: "A computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software." Gates set this goal back in 1975, when it wasn't clear that most people would even encounter a computer in their lives, let alone see any need to buy one. To be sure, Microsoft has never been on the forefront of tech innovation; it took its best ideas — the graphical OS, the office suite, the Web browser — from other companies. As a result, many Gates detractors argue that we'd all be running PCs anyway, even if Microsoft had never stepped in. But I'm not so sure. The PC as envisioned by Microsoft — ugly, cheap, everywhere — is very different from the one envisioned by Steve Jobs (stylish, expensive, proprietary). Had Jobs won that fight, some of us would have pretty computers while the rest of us might have none.

Today, this same philosophical battle is being waged over mobile gadgets, the next great frontier in computers. As in the early 1980s, Apple is setting the standard, but its strategy — focusing on a proprietary high end — will leave out the masses. There's an obvious opportunity for big thinking, for a company to push a revolutionary, cheap, run-everywhere mobile OS for cell phones, tablets, and the smorgasbord of appliance-like machines that are coming down the pike. But Microsoft has been criminally absent from this game. Last February, more than three years after Jobs unveiled the iPhone, Ballmer finally introduced a completely redesigned Windows Phone, but he may already be too late. In Microsoft's absence, Google has emerged as Apple's main mobile competitor.

Gates would never have let such an opportunity slip. When presented with the threat of the Internet in the '90s, he moved mountains to crush Netscape. Some of his actions weren't very admirable; indeed, there was never a lot to like about Bill Gates the businessman. But at least you can say this: He knew how to win. And he could do it again.

Illustration by Frank Chimero

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  • William Carr

    " he moved mountains to crush Netscape. Some of his actions weren't very admirable"

    Some of his actions were actionable, and almost got Microsoft split up.

    Since then Microsoft has walked small. Competing on an even playing field has not gone well for them.

    If Mr. Gates were to return, he too would have to play by the rules.

  • Cynch72

    sorry for some of the typos. I need to change my keyboard... it's over used! lol! but I still love the PC! :-)

  • Cynch72

    #1 - everyting does nt revolve on the phone. I for one could care less with my phone. It's too small to navgate the web, check mails or FB. I still prefer the PC. And I love my Zune. So why write something negative about it. Duh!
    #2 - I for one wants every employee at Microsoft to be loyal to their products. Heck! That's the one that's feeding them and their family. Where is the delicadesa? I own a cake business and would want to see my friends, family & employees to be eating my goodies. It wold not feel right, nor would I feel good watching someone eating another copanies goodies. That is normal!
    #3-They just need a visionary like Bill Gates. They do need someone who can envision new products and developments for the next 20 years. They are still not far behind because they are for a fact the tendsetters. Everyone else are 'copycats'... and that's what writers need to focus on.
    #4 - The company does not revolve around phones/ zunes - they have more products to be proud of, of which scavengers are waiting to copy.
    H E L L O!

  • David Emery

    > The PC as envisioned by Microsoft -- ugly, cheap, everywhere -- is very different from the one
    > envisioned by Steve Jobs (stylish, expensive, proprietary). Had Jobs won that fight, some of
    > us would have pretty computers while the rest of us might have none.

    That line of reasoning is so much effluent. The big difference is "all running Microsoft" vs "some running Apple." Before the Microsoft monopoly, there were plenty of alternatives, ranging from CP-M to OS/2 to Apple II and then MacOS. Minix was around and open source before Linus Torvalds came out with Linux. I do have to give Microsoft credit for establishing the Office products as interoperability factors; I remember the problems with WordPerfect and WordStar proprietary formats. (Still, it wasn't a Microsoft choice, but market forces, that made Office document formats ubiquitous.)

    I think it's Steve Jobs who said, "I don't mind the Microsoft monopoly, it's the monopoly on such mediocre products I object to."

    What we're seeing here, between Google Apps, Apple iWork (Mac and iPad versions) and OpenOffice is an ability to support 'computational diversity,' and that's a big part of Microsoft's business problem. OpenOffice is actually more reliable opening MS Office documents than Microsoft's own Mac-based product.

    Incidentally, one problem with Microsoft is when measured by 'total cost of ownership', Windows PCs aren't all that cheap. That's a combination of OS costs (upgrades), 3rd party software costs (anti-virus software) and hardware that you're lucky if it lasts 3 years... Until last year, the average of my Macs was 4 years (I did a lot of upgrading last year.)

  • George Kyaw Naing

    (1) I dont know the inner workings of Microsoft as BL Smith seems to do. But I agree with him that Ballmer has no vision. Recently here in a Singapore conference, he said his mantra, "three screens and a cloud." Isn't he just parroting what others are saying?

    (2) Bill Gates may come back. But what about Michael Dell's come back? Today's situ is very different form the days of crushing Netscape? Apple, Google, etc are not as dumb as Netscape.

    (3) Yet, I believe Microsoft can stage a comeback even under Steve ballmer because vision/strategy goes only so far.

    Does Ballmer execute? That 's the key question. He can get vision from his consultants a dime a dozen?

    george kyaw naing


  • BL Smith

    Kudos, Farhad, for having the courage to say what the editors of most business mags seem unwilling to. I live near Redmond and count many Microsoft veterans and alumni among my friends. They all recognize that not only does Steve lack any semblance of vision, but that he's systematically purged Microsoft execs who might have been viable candidates to replace him. The recently announced exit of Robbie Bach is only the latest example of this process.

    Perhaps the most perplexing question is, why does Bill Gates still sanction Steve as CEO? Even thought Gates has relinquished day-to-day involvement, he's still Chairman of the Board. If he wanted Ballmer to leave, it would be done immediately. BIll's failure to act, given the evidence of the last several years, is mystifying.