In defense of Steve Ballmer

Bashing Steve Ballmer, the outgoing Microsoft CEO has been a parlor sport for years now. Critics blast Ballmer for not sustaining a bull market stock price for Microsoft, for “missing” mobile, for thwarting creativity and driving talented people out of the company. But chiefly, if you read between the lines, one of the biggest knocks on Ballmer is that he isn’t Bill Gates. Microsoft Way Sign

Frankly, the idea that Microsoft(s msft) co-founder, chairman and former CEO Bill Gates could have done better than Ballmer in the post-PC era, is a stretch. (And by the way, anyone who holds out hope that Gates will return Steve Jobs-like to rescue Microsoft, has another think coming.)

A lot of the Gates worship is based on revisionist history. Let’s go to the video tape. Gates was still firmly ensconced as CEO of Microsoft when the company missed the internet. His 1995 book The Road Ahead barely mentioned the web. The visionary’s vision was off that time. One of Gates most endearing moments came a trade show video years later when he claimed to have discovered the internet (full pause) years after everyone else did.

Ballmer critics slam him for being boisterous (who cares?), for discounting the iPhone (ok they’re right on that) but when Gates ceded the CEO slot in 2000, he left Ballmer with a raft of serious problems, said several former Microsoft executives who spoke on condition of anonymity. None of these alums are particularly enamored of Ballmer, but all feel he’s gotten a bum rap.

Exhibit A:  Antitrust issues

Gates left Ballmer with a “huge mess on his hands with the DOJ,” said one former Microsoft VP, referring to the long-running U.S. Department of Justice anti-trust case against Microsoft. In the end, Microsoft was found to be a monopolist but the judgement was reversed when the sitting judge gave pre-judgement interviews to reporters that showed his bias. Still, the case was a huge PR black eye and drained resources.

“It took Steve to settle with the DOJ and the EU. Bill never admitted how damaging his own testimony was,” said one former VP.

Exhibit B:  The Longhorn-Vista debacle.

Much of the blame for the painful Vista episode which affected Microsoft years after the fact, is on Gates. It was he who kept demanding changes and more features as the project bloated, came in late, and to put it kindly — was badly executed. Vista was announced in 2005 and launched worldwide in 2007 to near universal derision.

“Bill’s Vista obsession hurt Microsoft on the mobile side. It lost sight of this huge opportunity and was blindsided by the iPhone in 2007,” said a second former Microsoft exec. Vista also damaged the company’s ecosystem — particularly the hardware OEMs who tried to sell PCs running it. And, not least of all, it caused Microsoft to turn inward to “fix” its bread-and-butter Windows business while the rest of the world moved on without it, said the former Microsoft VP.

Exhibit C: Deadwood employees

One famous quote about Ballmer is that “he’s like a pine tree. nothing can grow under him … everybody leaves.” The exodus of talent like Steven Sinovsky, Bob Muglia, Bill Veghte, Kevin Johnson, seems to bear that out. The flip side is that inside Gates-led Microsoft there was a cadre of “friends of Bill” who were expensive executives  and engineers allowed to stay on long after their useful shelf life ended. That deadwood was demotivating, to say the least.

Exhibit D:  Microsoft’s sales machine

People slam Ballmer for being a sales guy, but hey, sales is the life blood of any company. Ballmer should get props for assembling and running the company’s well-oiled sales machine and its massive partner network.

“Steve is the one who built the field [sales force], the distribution channels, the $72 billion in annual revenue and he was with Bill from the beginning to build that franchise,” said the another former executive.  As he pointed out,  Microsoft rarely had the very best product and yet it sold a whole bunch of stuff for massive profits.

The former VP summed it up: “Steve has his flaws and created his own problems [but] he inherited an unbelievable mess from Bill that people in general do not appreciate, and I’m not sure anyone could have done a better job than Steve under the circumstances.”