How to assess the legacy of soon-to-be-retired Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer? It would be too easy to merely focus on his many mistakes over the years but that would overlook the fact that Microsoft under his watch has remained an industry powerhouse that still has the world’s most-used desktop operating system, its best-selling game console and an unmatched productivity software suite in Microsoft Office. Most importantly, Microsoft continues delivering solid profits every quarter, highlighted by an enterprise services division that runs like a well-oiled cash machine. While Ballmer has been far from perfect as CEO, he’s leaving Microsoft in reasonable condition and not in a giant pile of flaming rubble as former HP CEO Léo Apotheker did, for example.
All that said, the biggest mistake that Ballmer made was quite a doozy: He completely overlooked the importance of mobility in the computing market. In case you don’t recall, Ballmer at one time predicted the iPhone would flop because it lacked a physical keyboard and that Android would fail because Google wasn’t slapping OEMs with any licensing fees to use it. But as bad as Ballmer’s predictions were, his company’s efforts to create their own mobile products were even worse as they either came to the market way too late (the Surface tablet) or were simply disastrously executed (the KIN mobile phone).
This abject failure in the mobile computing market has left Microsoft as essentially a bipolar company: It has a dynamite enterprise division and, Xbox aside, a floundering consumer electronics division. The big challenge for Ballmer’s successor will be figuring out if it wants to cut its losses in the consumer market and become an enterprise-centric company as IBM once did or to continue soldiering on until Windows-based smartphones and tablets catch on.
There is one thing we can say for certain, however: Unless Microsoft appoints Charlie Sheen or Alex Rodriguez to run the company, the next CEO won’t be nearly as entertaining as Ballmer has been over the years.
Enjoy retirement, Big Steve. In more ways than one, you’ll be missed.