Ballmer didn't kill tablets at Microsoft; the truth is much worse than that

Having your old boss to make bad decisions for you means a fail at both vision and CEOing.

I realize no one at Microsoft is going to remember that I blamed Steve Ballmer for missing the boat on tablets. And smartphones. And clouds. I'm sure Ballmer has the same crew of junior assistants most top execs hire to hold grudges for them, but even at Microsoft the flow of both deserved and undeserved criticism is too heavy to keep track of most individual sources.

My blame-smearing at the time wasn't specific to the issue of tablets. It was more of a global condemnation of Ballmer's time on the big throne of the Evil Empire and how much prestige and market-leading power it lost during his watch. Dropping irreparably behind iOS and Android in smartphones caused it to lose position in a market it had already established. Failing to enter the tablet market in a serious way until long after Apple had its leadership sewn up caused it to lose a huge potential market as well. Being so late to the tablet market it seemed to have given it up completely relative loss in its ability to lead markets as it dropped irreparably behind in the market and seemed to have given up on tablets completely.

I and most other people blamed Ballmer for both decisions. It turns out, according to a very detailed analysis and insider tell-all from CNET writer Jay Greene, that Ballmer isn't the one who blew the call on tablets.

According to Greene's reporting, in early 2010, Ballmer was caught between funding two radically different choices. He could have backed Courier – an innovative dual-screen, touch-enabled tablet that ran a Windows variant that might not be completely compatible with other Windows products, but would have been a real alternative to the iPad relatively early in the game. It was also being developed by J Allard, the perpetually forward-thinking Microsoft exec who, among other things, made the Xbox a success.

Ballmer's other choice was a boring, safe product plan that followed the Windows-is-the-world approach that let Microsoft dominate the world of computing – until the customers doing the computing decided it was easier to carry an iPhone or iPad than a Windows box.

Unable to choose, he did something really successful CEOs rarely do: He decided to forego his own judgment and ask the advice of a predecessor whose perspective was reinforced by years of incomparable success driven by monmaniacal dedication to one product and who hadn't made the leap to understanding that customers thought tablets were great even if he didn't.

Ballmer . He invited Bill to a meeting with J Allard, who Greene describes as a kind of designated hipster among the top execs at Microsoft. His ambitious, non-Windows-standard dual-screen Courier not only wasn't a copy of the iPad, it defined tablets as much closer to the midpoint in power and functionality between smartphones and PCs than the iPad. That was a big deal at a time people were still mocking iPads as nothing but an iPhone without the phone or convenience of fitting into a pocket.

Gates, according to Greene, grilled Allard in the aggressive, dismissive style for which he became infamous during his decades at Microsoft. The origin of the style may have been Gates' personal quirks, but the intent was Darwinian. Any product manager who collapsed, or just weakened an otherwise solid explanation after being told some new brainstorm was the "stupidest #*@#*%* idea I've ever heard" didn't have what it took to get the product developed or drive to make it compete against all the similar things already on the market.

Allard had been through it before. Talking about tablets, though, Allard couldn't answer all Gates' questions about how easily people would use the Courier to do all the things they'd do on a regular PC or laptop.

Tablets weren't PC replacements. They were extra conveniences people would use as a web-top, browsing, reading, using web apps, taking a few notes – not as an email archive and data-entry point, and not as a phone.

Gates didn't get it. He "had an allergic reaction" to the idea, Greene quotes one Courier worker as saying.

Ballmer didn't get it, either, but CEOs don't always have to Get It. They just have to know that It's there to be Gotten.

They have to realize that someone who works for them Gets It and can deliver It to customers at a profit before customers move on to another It. They also have to have the confidence to move forward with something they don't quite understand but know is doing well anyway.

Ballmer didn't have whatever it took to make that leap – the foresight, or the nerve or confidence in his team, the self confidence or whatever other virtue the hot CEO autobiographer of the moment attributes to him or herself to explain how they turned a lucky break into an empire.

Ballmer chose to stick with the pure Windows approach that served Microsoft brilliantly right up until that minute. In an industry infamous for the speed with which it uses up and throws out new ideas, one in which product-development cycles were shortening and the speed required of innovators was increasing, Ballmer decided to wait.

The decision caused Ballmer and Microsoft to miss the massive shift customers were making from PCs and laptops to smartphones and tablets. He didn't quite miss the shift to cloud computing, but resistance from the reseller base on which Microsoft's revenue depended slowed the move toward clouds as well.

Microsoft could have missed one or two of those shifts without drastic consequences. Missing or falling behind on all three put it in grave danger of becoming irrelevant.

It wasn't all Ballmer's fault. Gates didn't Get It either.

The difference between the two is that, when he was CEO, Gates knew when he didn't understand something that was, nevertheless, important.

In 1996, for example, after years of pooh-poohing the Internet as a pointless productivity suck, Gates realized that he might be right in disliking the Internet as a conduit for business, but his customers were going there anyway.

After a weeklong retreat to read up on the Internet and think about its implications, in Apri, 1996, Gates made the hard call to endorse a technology he didn't really understand as user.

He changed Microsoft from a company that was allergic to the Internet to one that built it into almost every product in its catalog.

It saved the company. At least, it put off the inevitable point at which any tech company starts losing a race it has always led because it has become too borne down by the weight of its expectations to move quickly and too focused on preserving its existing revenue streams to see the future clearly enough to know how soon they will end.

Ballmer faced the same kind of choice, though on a much smaller scale. He chose the safe and obvious course that, for tech companies, is always the most likely to be fatal.

By deciding to preserve what he could of Microsoft's past success at the expense of its future, Ballmer showed that he either didn't recognize gaps in his own understanding or was willing to assume they didn't matter.

He also showed that he didn't have the independence of mind to make a risky decision that went against the opinions of the industry icon in whose shadow he lived his whole adult life.

I admit, I put the blame wrong. I blamed Ballmer for blowing the call on tablets and phones. I meant to use them not as damning examples of incompetence; Ballmer's anything but incompetent, at least as a a manager.

I meant them as examples of the limits on his vision and perceptiveness, both of which are critical for leaders in an industry in which the future is always approaching so fast that picking the wrong position means you won't just be left behind, you'll be run over first.

Obviously Ballmer knows what position like to choose – facing the same way as Bill Gates, but standing a few paces behind.

That's a great piece of self-knowledge for Steve. He's a good corporate manager, not a tech visionary and there's nothing wrong with that, usually.

With Bill out of the company and Ballmer the one providing the vision, though, it's not such a great thing for Microsoft.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

Insider: How the basic tech behind the Internet works
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies