Ballmer defends the company, talks Netbooks and misses Bill Gates

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's Canadian key note had no "developers, developers, developers", but there was a "indows, Windows, Windows" Kodak moment. Steve Makris Photo (Sony HX-1 on Anti-Motion Blur)

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's Canadian key note had no "developers, developers, developers", but there was a "Windows, Windows, Windows" Kodak moment. Steve Makris Photo (Sony HX-1 on Anti-Motion Blur)

TORONTO-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer met with Canadian partners and industry leaders this week taking part in a one-day-early pre-launch of Windows 7 before heading south of the boarder for the official October 22 launch of the new operating system.

He didn’t shout “developers, developers, developers” in his keynote but did throw his fists in the air saying “Windows, Windows, Windows” in an exchange during an audience Q&A.

I was invited with a small group of journalists to sit down for a chat with Steve after his Canadian keynote, my first meeting with him. Compared to interviews with Bill Gates, Steve is the opposite. He gets worked up and almost shouts in his public keynotes but is very calm in private interviews, even when I poked him with this question.

Q. Does it bother you when analysts, even some of your co-workers, call Microsoft a version 2.0 company? They get it right the second time around. What are you doing to change that perception?

A. I don’t worry about the perception. I just want the products to be right. If they are not right the first time I won’t hang up my equipment and go home. The goal is to get things right out of the chute. But I think it is important to also say you are willing to continue even if the first incarnation is not right. The first incarnation of many things are not right. SAP didn’t get it right the first time with ERP, Oracle didn’t get it right with databases, Google didn’t get it right the first time with search, didn’t really pop when they started the company in 9-95 …didn’t pop for seven years. Some things do take off from V 1.0 and the first implementation, that’s fine too, but weare trying to make sure we get things right as fast as we can and at the same time that we not be so impatient and immature as to assume that we can’t learn, from getting feedback . So, I am neither sad nor proud of the statement you said. I just think it is important to do great work and also to keep an open mind and listen and be prepared to respond to the feedback you get.”

Having survived that one, unscathed, I asked Steve about his take on Netbooks.

Q. Has the popularity of the Netbooks surprised you? The OEM makers tell me that in order to meet the low cost factour, which is the sweet price nowadays for people due to the economy, Microsoft has to give deep discounts on its operating system for Netbooks compared to notebook and desktop computers. Is that a viable business model or is it just a passing phase right now?  

A.” I think you are going to have a certain percentage of the world say look, I will take the compromise, capability and performance that the Netbook implies in order to get the price.

The thing that I think is a little silly right now is that people think, in some sense, is that to get long battery life and light weight you also have to be underpowered. I think there will be a lot of nice notebooks, that are not underpowered, that have long battery life and have light weight.  

If you ask 10 people what Netbooks mean, you will get a bunch of different answers…to some people  it’s going to mean an atom processor, to some people it’s going to mean cheap, to some people its going to mean light , to some people it’s going to mean small screen, You will get a variety of different answers.

We are going to have a diversity of different solutions…for the lowest cost machine we need to have an operating system that is priced…Windows 7 Starter Edition is that operating system. In fact if a user buys a Windows 7 based Netbook with Windows Starter Edition, all of the full Windows 7 is on the machine, they just have to give us a credit card to activate it.”

Always the salesperson, Steve even gave out his email, steveb@microsoft.com his keynote for folks who want to do business with Microsoft.

Surprisingly Steve has no issue with companies keeping their Vista machines if they are happy with them, instead of having to feel compelled to upgrade to Windows 7. Despite all the negative publicity on Vista, Microsoft feels that Vista was a good product launched in an unprepared eco system. After SP2 the software giant,  rightly so, believes Vista is still a viable solution for many companies.

But the most revealing thing Steve told me was about his long-time Microsoft associate Bill Gates, who as you know, has switched his daily Microsoft work regimen to part time, directing his energy to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Q. Do you miss Bill?

A. “I don’t miss him as a friend because, we are still friends. I miss him as a co-worker…he is in a couple days a month and he and I were able to launch a board meeting, but it’s not the same, it’s not the same.” 

Interesting.

Industry observers often criticize Microsoft as being run like a family business. Microsoft managers have told me Bill is not missed by all staffers, many of whom prefer the more horizontal style of management. None miss the BillG review, where a project’s success hinged on a one-person career-changing meeting with Bill, who would approve or nix a project. Now, larger groups get involved in project reviews in a more collegial style.

But what may be missed, is the one-two punch combo Bill and Steve ran in the good old days.

And, no one in Microsoft today, can sit down and talk about the entire company like Bill could.

Things change, even for old technology warriors.

Check out my consumer-friendly take in Windows 7 at:

www.edmontonjournal.com/technology/Microsoft+lucky/2140057/story.html

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